Tompkins Square Park 25th Police-Riot Reunion

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park police riot.

Memories from New York
©2012 Andrew Lichtenstein

I’m not going to recount the details of the riot. The wikipedia article linked to above is not the best, but it will suffice.

I didn’t live in this neighborhood when the riot occurred. I lived in Washington Heights then, but I used to hang out down here with a friend of mine. Anything that was going on, we tried to make it to. Being in the park was an act of solidarity with the homeless encampment there, and with the larger goal of supporting housing as a human right.

All these years later, it probably doesn’t matter that I wasn’t there, unless I was fated to have been beaten up that night, in which case it’s a good thing I wasn’t there! Besides, I was already souring on the so-called anarchists. After the park was closed in 1991, they disappeared and haven’t been seen since. I’m sure the ones from that night have all gone on to work for their local Ron Paul campaigns, but the ones who adopt anarchism today still think they’re the first to discover that the police respond to provocations with violence, and that once people see this they’ll be shaken out of their stupor and overthrow the state. Hence, the preponderance of Guy Fawkes masks, smug and condescending. “East Village” anarchists were proponents of what Murray Bookchin called lifestyle anarchism, with its concern for autonomy and individualism. I’m not going to go into his arguments, or what he proposes as the alternative – it’s still a raincoat full of holes!

Anyway…

Reunion was probably not the right word to use to describe this event. I don’t think many people who were there that night came to this. For that matter, not that many people at all came to it!

Saturday
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The Bambi Killers had just finished.

Sunday
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During Iconicide’s performance.

I’m not sure three days of obstreperous noise was the best use of time and resources. Twenty five years later, is this what they still listen to? I know that many of the bands that played were around back in the late 80s, but three days of it? Even if three days was necessary, tables should have been set up around the perimeter with information, not only about that time, but current programs in the neighborhood. The Shadow1 had a table, but then they were the sponsor of the concerts, so it was more for self-promotion.

I don’t know. I wasn’t there for the planning, but then this is not the first time concerts have been held to commemorate this event, and I’ve never seen any kind of outreach at those either.

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There was also a film festival, sponsored by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, that took place at different locations in the neighborhood, from August 3 to 10.

I think the film festival was a great idea. They billed it as “1st Annual MoRUS Film Fest,” so hopefully they’ll be able to continue this annually. I’m not sure if it was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the police riot – its timing may have been – but something like this goes a long way in engaging people, something that was sorely missing from the concerts. The garden that I am a member of was to host two of them. The first one was moved to the MoRUS space due to rain, but the second one was held in the garden. We had a great turnout, and look forward to participating again next year.

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1The Shadow is going to start publishing again.

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Ethical Consumption

Despite the problems I described in Consumers in Capitalism,

wages are the focus for all pro-market localist schemes. If consumers buy locally-sourced goods from ethical sellers, it is claimed, they’ll shrink the economy to a more rational sustainable level.

It’s true that the West consumes too much; people buy what they don’t need or too much of what they do need. Businesses spend vast amounts of money to convince people that their lives are incomplete without the latest gadget. People who reject this oftentimes get drawn into their own form of elitism, paying huge sums for the coffee and gadgets that define their counter-cultural cachet.

Localists frame this by aggregating individual consumption choices. It’s assumed that we’ve all chosen, on our own, to consume too much, and this individualism marks localist thinking. Individual choices, it’s said, put together, will change the system. Making numerous small choices will add up to changing big ones. Consumers can change not only their spending habits but entire industries. Michael Shuman names ten different areas shoppers could buy locally, imagining a consumer-led panacea of local business, finance and technology to bring the community together “to envision a better economic future for all of its members.”

But capitalism does a lot more than offer different products for people to buy. The market coordinates production globally, which makes it very hard to reproduce in miniature. For example, localists acknowledge that the quality of local food isn’t consistent. It’s hard to get and often costs more, both because of economies of scale and because its production and distribution aren’t subsidized. Consumers are supposed to compensate for this by paying more.

The problem is that the capitalist economy is too complex for individuals to change at a micro level. But rather than democratically plan the economy, allowing social need and not profit to dictate what gets made and how, consumers are supposed to refuse to “give in” and cope individually with market anarchy.

If ethical consumption relies on consumer preferences, then consumers can equally choose not to participate. In a system where consumers are workers with nothing to sell except their labor power, it’s rational to buy goods as cheaply as possible. And this is what happens when capitalism goes into crisis.

Still, ethical consumption remains popular: after all, it’s a way to feel you’re changing the world by spending a little extra. But the question is whether it’s actually changing the production and distribution circuits of capital. At what point will the number of ethical consumers peak, when those with no disposable income can’t participate? And, since it can’t change the global drive to reduce costs below the average global price, what distinguishes ethical consumption from charity, a way to salve the consciences of the well-to-do, leaving the structures creating inequality intact and growing?

The assumption behind consumer activism is that we’re limited to shopping to express our discontent. This is effectively saying the neoclassical economists are correct: the economy runs on consumer preferences, not exploitation. This shifts blame onto individual consumers for the failings of the system: if there’s alienation and environmental misery, it’s your fault for buying the wrong things. Yet consumers are also workers who must sell their labor power or lose their livelihoods. They buy what makes their wages stretch further.

In fact, the vast majority of people in the world need to consume more; capitalism isn’t meeting their needs. Billions of people live on less than $2 a day. In this context, calling for people to consume less misses the point. Real ethical consumption is collective. Capitalism makes it impossible for most people to meet their needs on their own, but as a society, we could provide houses, hospitals and schools for everyone. Obviously, this implies a vast change in the structure of ownership and consumption, but it’s a far more positive vision than localism’s individualism.

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 33-38.