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Occupy Chicago Thu Mar 15 2012

Eye on #OCHI: About that Festival

eyeonochi.jpgBy Joe Macaré

If you think about the commodification of lifestyle in our capitalist society, we're now able to purchase any kind of identity you could possibly imagine within that. ... The idea that your money, how you spend it, is where your politics is expressed potentially reproduces the idea that capitalist democracy is this great marketplace of ideas where it's just up to you to pick and choose. It ignores uneven power relations, social relations, the fact that some ideas are more "valued" than others are and can quite literally be a matter of life and death for another individual or population.
Mimi Thi Nguyen

The organizers of the Occupy Festival, scheduled to take place May 12-13 in Union Park, say on their snazzy-looking website that they want "to highlight the struggle of social and economic inequality through artistic performance." In an email exchange, the man behind the festival, Graham Czach, told me it's intended to provide "a place for expression, peace, positivity, and change."

There's been plenty of expression: A lot of people have been expressing their views on the Occupy Festival already, but this hasn't involved much peace, and only a little positivity. And the change people seem afraid of is a perhaps inevitable—but still to be resisted—process in which Occupy becomes a consumer brand. Some worry that because their General Assembly (GA) has officially endorsed the event, Occupy Chicago is accelerating this process.

It's always a challenge for anyone sympathetic to a political movement to write about an issue that divides opinion within that movement. The media loves a "lefty schism" narrative, and has played its part in fomenting such divides. Czach already seems stung by the criticism, saying the organizers have been "bombarded with negativity." He is keen to clear up what he sees as a series of miscommunications, reassuring me that "We are on the same team," and wondering "What happened to the unity and positive coming together and working together of the people in the movement?" Still, when active individuals within a movement speak out with differing views, it does them a disservice not to report it.

"The Shellac of Occupy Rhetoric"

Michael Ehrenreich, a member of the Secretariat committee who has also been contributing to the working groups around mass actions planned for April 7 and the NATO/G8 summits in May, was at the GA at which a proposal passed to endorse the festival (you can read the original proposal here). He says:

"The two guys presenting were very persuasive and really made the impression that some very big names (Neil Young, Rage Against the Machine, Lupe Fiasco) were basically on board. They regaled us with talk about how responsible and good to their employees the sponsors for this were going to be, and then were very curt and evasive when talking about how much this would cost regular people."

No artists have been announced for the event at the time of writing. Ehrenreich voted for the proposal, but says he had reservations at the time which appear to have become exacerbated by subsequent developments. In addition to the $35-$55 cost, which Ehrenreich believes is "far too high." He says the organizers "waved out of hand" the idea of a "suggested donation" for entry instead. There is also the issue of the festival clashing with a long-planned People's Summit, intended to start building momentum leading up to the NATO summit (and the G8 summit, before it was moved). Ehrenreich says the festival organizers "wouldn't budge on this either."

"CANG8 [the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda] and working groups in Occupy Chicago have politely asked them to move the time or date on this, and they just won't. The People's Summit, in my opinion, is a far more important event, a more egalitarian event, and has actually political consequences."

Perhaps most damningly, Ehrenreich also claims that requests for political speakers to be part of the festival were denied. "They are trying to strip any political context out of the event and just leech onto the Occupy 'brand,'" he told me. This is a view shared by Dana Cutts, who is on the Occupy Chicago Education Committee but emphasized she was speaking only as an individual:

"Instead of working toward a compromise, festival organizers suggested subsuming elements of the People's Summit into the festival, but without overt anti-capitalist or 1% vs. 99% rhetoric," Cutts said. "It seems they just want the shellac of occupy rhetoric, not the content."

Czach flatly denies this and says he has the email exchanges to prove that the festival organizers "have been open and willing to work with" the People's Summit organizers, including changing the festival's hours. "We have been planning on having speakers from them and other areas of Occupy the entire time," he says. "We are also supplying the People's Summit attendees with discounted tickets and free [bus] shuttles as well as some other creative mutual partnering."

But because the Occupy Festival not called the "Occupy Chicago Festival," it's not just activists in Chicago who have concerns, to put it mildly, about the project. "I assume the organizers... had positive intent," said Occupy Wall Street's @DiceyTroop on Twitter, "but instead of being an outreach tool, it's screwing our credibility."

Not About Branding?

The Occupy Festival has its supporters within Occupy Chicago. Sugar Russell is a member of the Press Committee and is also working on the event. She backs Czach's claims regarding collaborating with the People's Summit and other Occupy Chicago committees, and is adamant that the festival is "not about branding." She says, "The great thing about the Occupy Festival is that it is a large outreach project to the general population who may not be engaged on the issues that the Occupy Movement addresses on a daily basis. It celebrates the culture of Occupy, allows for some celebration of our work, and will allow protesters to get a morale boost."

This, inevitably, raises the question of what "the culture of Occupy" might be. The movement has always been a broad one, especially in all its local variations, and has always involved some uneasy or at least unusual bedfellows: socialists and anarchists (real ones, not the scary stereotype), revolutionaries and reformers, queer feminist radicals and economic policy wonks (not exclusionary categories, I know), liberals and the occasional libertarian. But perhaps the most fundamental difference in outlook is between those who want to reform capitalism so that the 99% get a fairer deal, and those who believe it is a fundamentally corrupt system that will always work to the benefit of the 1%.

It seems pretty clear which of two Graham Czach is. While he told me he believes "there have been a great number of atrocities done in the name of Capitalism," he added "as well as within other systems of society throughout the world and its history." When he writes about his vision for the festival, he uses phrases like "responsible economics," "socially responsible businesses," and "putting ideals of job creating into action" (some of which were echoed by Russell).

Whether that kind of terminology appeals to you is up to you, but it has to be observed that it is much more, as they say, "business-friendly" than much of Occupy's usual rhetoric. Czach even boasts that "this event is a green event under the City of Chicago's green event guidelines." He's an entrepreneur, essentially, however well-meaning.

Czach insists that turning Occupy into just another consumer brand within capitalism "is not what we are doing at all." But he is also proud to point out that "Anything you purchase at the festival including tickets benefits great causes whether it's green initiatives or the Occupy Movement."

Which brings us back to the Mimi Nguyen quotation I led with: Occupy as an option you can support through your choice of purchases, operating smoothly within the capitalist machine. It's worth remembering that brands are not just big bad mega-corporate logos. The craft breweries, organic artisan restaurants, punk rock boutiques and other cool little local companies to whom you choose to give your hard-earned cash still tend to be brands, and you spend your money that way partly to communicate something about yourself. It doesn't seem like an unreasonable claim to say that Occupy Wall Street was meant to be... something different.

The 99%, the 1% and the 50%

Czach's "hope for the future" is to set up a non-profit organization "that allows us to put on events for organizations looking to do good things in the world, which will generate awareness for their various causes, as well as help fund their various initiatives." Right now, however, many activists are acutely aware of how problematic non-profits and other organizations looking to do good things in the world can be, whether it's Invisible Children and #KONY2012, the Komen Foundation, or BBH's "homeless as wifi hotspots" promotion at SXSW.

All of those cases revolved around projects or organizations being subject to a greater level of scrutiny than they had predicted, so if Czach feels needlessly attacked, he should take comfort that he is not alone. But scrutiny will inevitably heighten if details are unclear or transparency is perceived to be lacking, and there are still some questions about Occupy Festival that remain unanswered: questions about the thorny subject of money.

I asked both Czach and Sugar Russell: How will the communities who live local to Union Park be involved in the festival? What about low-income or deeply impoverished people who can't afford $35 for a ticket? Neither of them answered these questions directly, preferring to talk about the discounts for People's Summit attendees and free entry for volunteers. Russell also talked about increased business and partnership opportunities for local businesses (hey, just like the NATO summit!).

So while the Occupy Festival has canceled its initial plans to include VIP passes (the kind of idea so tone-deaf and frankly, if Occupy is indeed a brand, so off-brand it's amazing it was ever considered), entrance to this event will only be available to those who can afford to spend at least $35 dollars to get in, unless they work for free (perhaps only initially—we'll get to that) as a volunteer. Those aren't 1% prices, but perhaps that highlights one problem of the 99% as a rhetorical device: There's a hell of a lot of inequality within that 99%, and Occupy's best moments, in Chicago and elsewhere, have stood up for and actively involved some of those at the very bottom of the pile.

Entry fees, on the other hand, inevitably exclude the poorest. And it's worth noting the location being temporarily turned into one that requires an entry fee. Union Park is a free, open public space for the neighborhood most weekends. From May 12-13, something naming itself "Occupy" will be taking over that space and charging money to get in. No matter how good the cause, that's a very different model of interaction than Liberty Plaza Park's free food and health care.

Then there's the question of where the money made at the festival will go. Since it became clear this was going to be a contentious issue, some within Occupy Chicago have been emphasizing the need for the festival as a fundraising event in order to maintain and build their movement. Fifty percent of net profits will be donated to Occupy Chicago, which immediately led the AV Club and others to wonder what's going to happen to the other half. Russell and Czach gave me more or less the same answer: It will go to the people who are putting the festival on, an unspecified split between "the production company, event organizers, and all the people that are doing enormous amounts of work for no guarantee of pay."

While Czach has a point that it's the organizers who are "shouldering all the liability" should the festival take a loss, the fuzziness of the details here will require close examination. "We are creating jobs and paying people fairly for their work, if the festival turns a profit," he says. But net profit is normally defined as what's left after the overheads have been paid—which would include the cost of putting on an event, including wages. I asked Czach if he meant that anyone who works to put on the event will be doing it on an initially voluntary basis, but will then receive a share of 50 percent of whatever net profits, if any, the festival makes. "Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying," he replied, "however there are some fixed production expense wages included in the overhead that are necessary to follow union standards."

Czach is unlikely to be happy with this article, which is a shame, because I don't doubt his heartfelt sincerity. But it seems as if he was surprised and unprepared by the number of questions people have had, or that there was a strong anti-capitalist streak within the Occupy movement in the first place:

"We are trying to do a very positive thing to help people and spread awareness... I'm getting this super exclusive elitist vibe from a lot of occupiers that they are trying to speak on behalf of the entire movement and excluding people from it. I was under the impression that we were to rise above as the people united and bring our world back to the power of the people with everyone included."

Actually, many of the festival's critics seem resigned to the fact that the Occupy Festival will be perceived as part of the movement. Michael Ehrenreich would just rather focus on something else:

"At the end of the day, any attempt to 'remove' our name from it won't come to fruition. I think throwing our weight behind the People's Summit will make an impact. It's important, it's powerful, it's actually political, so let's not lose sight of what we're doing."

Fellow occupier Sam Sandmel sounds a more optimistic note about Occupy Festival, albeit a cautious one into which it's hard not to read some foreboding: "We're putting a lot of faith into the organizers to put on a good show and adhere to our values. I hope they can pull it off."


Joe Macaré is development and communications associate at Truthout and an editor and contributor at the Occupied Chicago Tribune. He has appeared on WBEZ, Citizen Radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss the Occupy Chicago movement.

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William Hamilton / April 9, 2012 1:01 PM

Not everyone wants to spend all their time listening to the people who just showed up wagg their hands and prove they don't know the difference between a congressman and Senator while waiting to be arrested. Some things need to be fun, rewarding and effectively organized. The standard for something which changes our society is higher than invented in the last fifteen minutes, with nobody in charge and done for free.

William Hamilton / April 9, 2012 1:03 PM

Not everyone wants to spend all their time listening to the people who just showed up wagg their hands and prove they don't know the difference between a congressman and Senator while waiting to be arrested. Some things need to be fun, rewarding and effectively organized. The standard for something which changes our society is higher than invented in the last fifteen minutes, with nobody in charge and done for free.

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