Michael Jackson

They were ex-cons and grad students, fractious Bolsheviks and urban castaways, rock-throwers and pot-smokers, juggalos and candy kids. They were people angry at their chances or at someone else’s. They were there because they were trying to make art about it or because it was a safe place to sell drugs or they just wanted to fight the cops. They were houseless and jobless. They were shrill and outraged. They had bizarre ideas about the gold standard. They talked about full communism. They mumbled to themselves and burned with rage and regret. They had tenure. They were from the neighborhood.

Earlier there had been a large and largely aimless march of thousands that looped around the city, dissolving into riot and reforming in various rivulets that flowed back toward their starting place. Most of them had arrived late, tracking the march with their smartphones and cutting diagonals to catch up with it. This was a time in history when they could watch themselves from above on a livestream from a helicopter on little handheld screens, though if they were smart they dressed in such a way that they couldn’t make themselves out when they were part of the large surging mass but only when they broke from the edges to leave small fires and broken windows and various messages to the degenerate leaders of the planet before the march ended and deposited them all in the encampment in the square, domed now by the wet thudding of the rotors and ringed with cries.

It was very loud. The noise from the helicopters and sirens and a throbbing public address system joined the rising and falling roar of the motley horde. They measured their power in sound, not as volume but as an indescribable quality of sound, a tone, a vacillating hollow in the center of sound in which nothing and everything could be heard, in which everything that could be said was said by someone somewhere. Their power was like that too, a vacillation. Sometimes power meant an ability to produce events: to break the law in a particular way, without being stopped, and to keep breaking it, for instance, by piling tents together in a large public square and establishing kitchens and libraries and daycares and holding concerts and distributing needed supplies while violating dozens of municipal ordinances regarding health and safety, as well as state and federal laws, and offending the sensibilities of the better class of people. But mostly power just meant that things happened, happened differently than they did when scripted by the flows of information and electricity and money. Their power meant more or less a proliferation of unpredictable human behaviors. Power was, in this sense, less a measure of success than of volatility, the dials whipping back and forth or spinning in place, the lights on the control panel blinking red yellow orange. They could not be simply indifferent to outcomes, however; that was the catch, it was only power because their desire was directed, if not effective. They couldn’t just, you know, do whatever.

They were trying to have a meeting. They really needed to have a meeting, they said, after gathering as many of themselves as possible from the throng. There was a plan to have a meeting to make a plan, because they would be attacked soon, they said, yelling over the roar, they would be attacked, either by the police or by their proxies. They were certain of it. If not tonight then tomorrow, if not tomorrow then next week and they needed a plan. They needed to defend themselves but part of the problem, as they had heard themselves say before, was that they didn’t really know who they were, who it was who would stay and stand and defend what they had built and who would stand around and watch. There were so many watchers. It was a movement of spectators, people who held their phones in front of their faces while others were being beaten by the police, people who were in the streets but only inasmuch as the streets were an extension of the screens and keys and radio frequencies that formed a space they all agreed to hallucinate together. These people were not them. Or rather, they were a them but not a them as they meant it here, not a them as the you of a we. The people who stood around in the streets with their cameras understood the movement they were part of as the coordination of an indignity, as the distribution of images of suffering along the circuits of the globe. The people who stood around in the streets with their cameras wanted to be beamed up by the helicopters, pixelated, and dusted across the planet. The people who stood around but not up would not defend the fragile thing that had been built.

They were sitting in a lumpy ellipse behind a low granite wall that opened onto an alley. Their clothes smelled of tear gas. They held in their body the feeling that just being able to sit for a minute or two was like lowering oneself into cool clear water on a hot day. Someone none of them recognized came running out of the alley. “Hey! Hey! Tell that guy to stop taking my picture! Why is he trying to take my picture?” He vaulted the wall and disappeared into the crowd. His pursuer tried to close the distance but was swallowed up by a band of middle school mariachis.

“Look,” they said, “let’s keep things as vague as possible. Imagine that everything you say here is getting replayed in a courtroom, ok.”

They tried but wondered what would be audible. A new sound had joined that of the helicopters, just as they were trying to add a few more parameters for the meeting: a squadron of motorcyles roaring down past the square, peeling out and popping wheelies and revving their engines and, in general, displacing the thudding helicopters with great clouds of sound and smoke.

“Probably off-duty cops,” they said.

One of them said they needed to understand the inverted wedge formation that Hannibal used to destroy the Roman army at Cannae in the 3rd century BC, Mao’s theory of people’s war and its later reformulation as foquismo, the cultural turn in counterinsurgency theory, the first use of LAPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics team in the 1969 assault on the Black Panther compound at 41st and Central. One of them said they wouldn’t sit in a meeting with a Holocaust denier who maintained that only maybe a couple thousand Jews died in Nazi-controlled Europe and mostly because the Allies bombed the supply routes and it was really cold. One of them said they knew exactly what the police would do, they had three generations of law enforcement in their family, they had brothers who were cops, their uncle worked for the FBI, the police would come from over there and over there, the police would march that way and this way, the police would use this thing and then that thing, and no, they wouldn’t say whether they were actually a cop. One of them might have been one of them or not and he orbited the group suspiciously playing dubstep from his phone. One of them said the only answer was peace and blessed them all before cartwheeling out of sight.

The day had been warm; they were sweating in their hoodies and jackets during the march and had stripped down to T-shirts and tank tops but now, toward evening, as they fell into shadow, a chill seeped up from the ground. They put their hoodies back on and their jackets back on or wrapped themselves in blankets or just shivered. The nights were cold. The attack, when it came, they said, would come at the coldest hour, right before dawn.

What could they do, though, really? This was a war but it wasn’t a war where both sides fought each other with maximal force, fought to the death. They would stand no chance in such a contest, armed with a few rocks and bottles, slingshots and flares and roman candles and their undisciplined bodies. At the moment they could call on five or ten thousand people at maximum, they said, very few of whom would risk serious injury or imprisonment, and would flee, wisely, when things started to look grim enough. The police had guns they could fire with practiced hands, the police had armored vehicles, the police could call in reinforcements from dozens of nearby law enforcement agencies and behind the police there was the army, row on row of armored vehicles that could roll into their city within 24 hours and post up on every corner and, behind that, you had the commandos, the special forces, tens of thousands of highly-trained and highly-equipped fighters who could kill you before you were even born. Some of them had played, as teenagers, the popular video game in which, instead of completing the various missions, they might choose to shoot a cop or run over a cop with their car. When they did that, immediately a higher class of cops would show up, a SWAT team, armed with more-lethal weapons. If they managed to kill the SWAT officers, then the game would send in an even more formidable set of FBI officers. If they killed any of those artificial cop intelligences, the army would arrive with tanks and a helicopter, making it almost impossible to survive for more than a few seconds. The only thing they could do was run immediately to the tank and try to steal it, an almost impossible trick to pull off but one which, if done successfully, would offer you some protection. From that point, however, there was nowhere to go really and nothing to do except drive around blowing things up until the other tanks destroyed their tank. Managing to steal a tank was a certain sort of winning different than the winning which involved the completion of all the missions, but neither type of winning resulted in the underlying transformation of the rules of the game. When a player had completed all the missions a readout would appear, a series of statistics enumerating the havoc they had created: cops killed, cop cars destroyed, buildings destroyed, total damage in dollars. But no matter how high those numbers got all they could do was play the game again, perhaps with the difficulty setting raised another notch.

They, too, could measure their own activity in numbers, they said, in data which the newspapers were more than happy to provide: property damages of 1.5 million, cost to the city 2 million, dollars of business lost 7 million. And yet, the graph of these damages could slope upward without ever changing the coordinates of the space it divided. There was a stage, surely, where the economic effects of an insurrection or a general strike became intolerable for capital, forcing concessions, but before that stage it was important not to make too much of the dollar values. You could not win on those terms, on the enemy’s terms. In other words, it wasn’t the kind of war you could win by force alone, win by racking up damages, though you needed to do damage. No one has ever won that kind of war without losing what mattered. Any insurrection that mattered, they said, would have to split the army, it would have to incapacitate and demoralize the police through the production of a politics of confusion and this could only be done through a testing of the political will of the reigning powers and a reckoning with the odd calculus in which repression brought more people into the streets and onto the sides of the partisans and destabilized the very economic foundations the powers were trying to preserve. They would win because, fundamentally, the police were limited in the amount of violence the police could use. These were political limits disguised as moral ones: crossing certain moral boundaries as to what the public would accept ran the risk of being counterproductive for the police, all things being equal. And if the powers that controlled the police wanted to start gunning people down in the streets by the hundreds, which they knew was always possible, they would need to prepare reasons for that.

In other words, they could win, they continued, but only by losing and thereby growing larger. And yet they had to try to win; if they didn’t try they’d lose even the losing. They had to learn to fail right: they couldn’t seek out pointless fights with the cops, but they couldn’t just retreat either and, as much as they didn’t want to admit it, the people standing around in the streets with their cameras were a part of this process, the winning and the losing and the winning by losing, they were part of growing larger or less intense or smaller or more intense, were part of the differential equation that linked all of these rates of change in a manner that could not be solved directly but could be investigated as a sort of terrain, a rumpled timespace of basins and ridges whose smooth, abstracted sides they slid along.

Beneath this formal terrain was a real terrain, one that was hardly fortuitous. They were open on every side. The police could come at them from all four corners, they said. They were protected only from below, though the fact that the earth would not open and disclose its demon police did not fill them with confidence. The best thing, one of them said, would be to encircle their encirclers, to trade the unfortifiable clump of grass and trees and cement they had inhabited for the last three months for the hit-and-run landscape of downtown. More people would come and the police would have to guard the square. They would be the stationary ones, standing around and getting hit in the head with bottles and D-cell batteries and various fireworks while running up huge overtime bills for the city and trapping most of their forces in one area so that elsewhere, in the east and the west and the north and the south, the hooligans and the lovers of ruthless and total lawlessness could do what they wanted. Who really cared about this symbolic acreage in the heart of this half-dying, half-gentrifying city? They wanted it all, they wanted to occupy places with toilets they could shit in without gagging and kitchens that were not just tents and so once the police were trapped in this one place, having overplayed their hand, they could do that, they could enter into the buildings commercial and residential that lay around unused because of the obedient anarchies of the market but then they would themselves be once again under siege and would have to rely on the solidarity of the neighborhood the city the countryside even the workers on the docks across the water if they wanted to survive, and though the breakthrough beyond capitalism was likely to occur at first in only one or two places on the globe, as was the case with capitalism, it would have to happen in a moment when the reigning powers were weakened at every point, threatened from within by heretofore pre-empted or neutralized or brewing insurrections or palace coups or stagnating economies facing one environmental disaster after another.

At some point during the meeting, the news came that the police were preparing to attack that night. There were hundreds of vehicles gathering by the arena, police officers from dozens of jurisdictions, and rumors of a few other staging sites nearby. The discussion had become violently abstract by that point. One of them had made a rousing speech, intended to shock them out of their confusion and despair, but the result had been a heated back-and-forth between fatalism and voluntarism, conducted by ad hoc reference to a thousand years of failed revolutions. “If things had been different they would have been different,” one of them said.” “No way, that’s impossible,” their interlocutor replied, “what happened happened, it really did.” Or something like that. The Russian and Chinese Revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, the Paris Commune. If only they had seized the banks, expropriated the landlords, been smarter faster stronger…Then what? Differences that don’t make a difference, the fan of conditional universes branching out along every axis, in twenty-seven dimensions, then narrowing toward the same bottleneck and here they were, with everything equal to everything else, each one of them dragging their separate lives into this public arena, their estrangements and debts, obligations and memories repeated across infinite universes. They couldn’t even agree with themselves about basic philosophical matters settled a thousand years ago. They couldn’t even pay their rent on time. They drank too much. They smoked too much. They talked too much. They had done some really terrible shit. Even this morning, on the way to the job they still had to work, drawing hearts in cappuccino foam for those with disposable income or typing things on screens that produced results moderately important to the reproduction of society and, therefore, themselves, they had sleepily remembered one of those things, pedaling up the hill or bouncing in the back of the bus. How strange, they thought, that they were them too, a line stretching back to the misty nursery. How strange, rather, that they were not them, but an I rather, a single one, a moi, as the French said, as they had been taught in graduate school before the university system fell in on itself. They were them and not-them. If them, then not-them. The French split the difference by making one and them, in this sense of the term, equivalent: on. They were doing their best to repair the language, inasmuch as they refused to be called he, as they had once been called, or she, as they had once also been called, and taken a name without clear gender vectors or with too many of them. This got closer to it, to the truth of who they were, in one way, but not another, because nouns had not only gender but quantity, and there was still the problem that social action always passed through the willed action of individual bodies, connected by language, by the flimsiest of pronouns. Or maybe that was just what they had learned under capitalism, where their bodies were united by a force that operated outside them, behind their backs, and that pitted them against each other, such that self-interested action was not only reasonable but even, sometimes, necessary for survival? But even in other cultural formations, where they might have felt themselves acting in unison with themselves, was there not the possibility of miscommunication, error, the unpredictability of social action? This was why they yelled at their children when they refused to put on their shoes, why their lovers could make them cry with the quick cruelty of a comment, and it was the very basis of all political action, since the reproduction of society could occur only through the recruitment of their wills and the constraint of their choices. Force alone could not make them obey, could not guide their hands through the tens of thousands of habitual yet complex motions that stitched their weeks together, nor assure their compliance with the often Byzantine urgencies of the law: no left turns, no parking on Tuesdays between 8 a.m. and noon, no stealing the things they urgently wanted. Fear was needed, fear and desire.

Perhaps technology, they thought, would eventually eliminate this problem by making them and the things they did not only knowable but known, aligning circuit and synapse in a single, world-long organism available and open and transparent to itself at every instant. For what possible individuation could there be if every agent and moment could be known? That sounds pretty far-fetched, they knew, but wasn’t that what had brought so many of them there, the cruel intimacies and dulling exposures and vast distances of the new screenworld, which forced them to compulsively affirm and negate themselves with pictures of what they looked like to themselves as seen by themselves? A world without others, a world which was them and them and them again? For now, the vectors of control operated mostly through surveillance, meaning both directly and indirectly, steering action through the fear of exposure, and following up with violence and repression where necessary.

The truth of the matter is that nearly everything they did could be found out, unless they were exceedingly careful and technically skilled. All of their phone conversations and data exchanges were logged. Their computers and phones contained long lists of where they had been and what they had done. And though some of this data could be encrypted or scrubbed, what worked and what didn’t work was enormously complex and changing by the minute. They had sat through daylong trainings by anarchist nerds who had devoted their lives to making encryption as easy and accessible as possible and they still didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. There were cameras everywhere: four-fifths of their movement in public was recorded. What saved them, of course, and what made it possible to do what they did, to break the law, repeatedly and even brazenly, was that the interpretation of this data could not be accomplished automatically and vital pieces were dispersed and only accessible with effort. The police needed a human to look through it all, a human who knew what to look for, and therefore the authorities had to make a decision to try to catch someone, and this cost something, dozens of work-hours at the least. Not every crime was worth it, which meant they were safe when there were hundreds or thousands of crimes that were of more or less equal severity, as in a riot, but they were absolutely screwed when there were a couple crimes of great severity. As such, the age of heroic acts organized in secret with one or two other people was more or less over; or rather, the age in which these sorts of acts might meet with success was over. One could, of course, break a few windows or stick glue in the locks of a building or cover stuff up with graffiti and get away with it, especially if one took appropriate precautions; but once things exploded or caught fire or god forbid people died, even or perhaps especially when the people who really fucking deserved to die died, the success rate plummeted. The odds for bank robbery were still pretty good, they said: 45% of the people who robbed a bank were never caught, largely because the volume of such crimes was high (close to 4300 yearly) and they therefore only warranted a certain amount of attention from the FBI, unless they involved killing, as they rarely did (pace the latest heist movie) since bank tellers and guards were taught very carefully not to precipitate any gunplay. But anything that could be called terrorism—assassination, arson, bombing, kidnapping—would be given full attention by the authorities. This had, again, partly to do with volume, and if, during a moment of extreme unrest, the number of these kinds of actions skyrocketed, the chance of getting away with them increased, which is to say nothing about whether this would improve the overall odds of revolution.

Would-be terrorists found themselves, therefore, on the horns of a dilemma. Imagine, they said, that the strategic value of principled, targeted, and efficient terrorism was clear, as in the case of a morally impeccable campaign to burn down as many US police stations as possible. They could rationally commit to such a risky action only if they had assurances that many others had committed to do the same, making their apprehension far less probable, and yet the formation of such assurances through any sort of national coordination was precisely what would make them vulnerable to apprehension by the authorities. Acting selfishly was rational if they knew nothing about what everyone else could do, but the results of such selfish action were worse for them in the long run, leaving the police free to be police. And yet, they would be foolish to assume that they were, in such conditions, entirely rational. On the one hand, their separation from each other, individuated into separate moments of deliberation, sitting at home and deciding whether or not to do it, to really do it, encouraged processes of reasonable and instrumental thought. On the other hand, when they had traveled this far down the deliberative highway, their reasons were almost never reasonable. They did it because they couldn’t take it anymore, because they had watched the last recording of the cops killing someone entirely unarmed that they could watch without doing something about it, because they had read a book that changed their lives, because they were young and unattached and psychologically formed in such a way as to make them inclined to leap into the void. They couldn’t stop themselves, even if they wanted to. They understood, they said, in response to themselves. They got it. They felt that way sometimes too.

Earlier that morning, before the march, they had walked down by the hundreds to the federal courthouse where they were being arraigned under section 2113 of the U.S. code—that is, bank robbery and incidental crimes—on charges that could earn them up to 50 years in prison even though the banks robbed people every day, walked up to people or went right into their homes and put the abstract gun to their head and said give me your money and so what was the difference, then, if they used an equally imaginary but in truth less powerful rhetorical gun to convince the tellers to put all the money they have in their drawers into a bag, money that would be used, they thought, with some admitted lack of clarity, to pay bail costs for the dozens of comrades who had been corralled in an alley and shot in the face with wooden bullets and then lost in county jail for a week due to a clearly intentional computer failure. But now that they too were in jail they could only in the most virtual of ways remain a they there. They were they because they said so, outside, in the streets. Jail, even more than prison, was a place that atomized ruthlessly across and against whatever solidarities could and did form. It atomized at the level of architectural layout, meaning they spent most of their time in solitary confinement in a small concrete cube with a hole in the corner for their bodily needs and a water-warped copy of Left Behind, a Christian apocalyptic story about those who remain after the rapture, placed in the cell as cruel joke or maybe some half-assed attempt to proselytize. The judge called their case, mispronouncing their name, and attaching to it a list of seventeen charges, including absurd things which were largely for show and which the judge would eventually throw out like criminal anarchy, treason, and attempted genocide. Their lawyer stood next to them, looking grim and disheveled despite or perhaps because of a reputation for extreme competence in political trials. Everyone agreed the case was hopeless, from a legal standpoint. Only by using the case to embarrass the mayor and the prosecutor as much as possible did they stand even the slightest chance of reducing their jail sentence down to something survivable like 8 years. The lawyer told them there was little hope that the judge would reduce bail to something anyone could afford but they would use the arraignment as an opportunity for speechmaking nonetheless, emphasizing their deep ties to the community, their uncle whose house was in foreclosure, their sister or maybe brother who worked for the city parks until they fired three quarters of their workers because of the catastrophic mismanagement of funds brought to light by the tax shortfall caused by the housing market crash caused by the banks. All the prosecuting attorney had to say, though, is that their crimes meant that they were a danger to everyday citizens. The courts did not presume innocence, contrary to what they had been taught in school. They presumed potential guilt, which was something very different than innocence, and which allowed the judge to levy penalties and restrictions of all sorts as a condition of bail: the woman who was being arraigned before them, on a drug possession charge, was granted bail only on the condition that she submit to searches by police any time she was stopped, that she submit to the condition of being presumed guilty. The defense attorneys, for their part, maintained not the innocence of their clients but their potential to be acquitted. They were surprised by how exceedingly formal the business of the court was, how little anyone seemed to believe in or care about the consequences of their speech, every word of which the accused were forced to suffer. The defense attorneys and public defenders and the judges were playing roles, they were in costume, and the real person in each role would have been more than willing to switch to another role. As with any workplace, it seemed mostly structured around opportunities for the lawyers to flirt with each other and make plans for dinner and drinks. Whether or not the parties to the negotiations had rapport with each other or maybe hated each other seemed most likely to determine a stroke of exceedingly good or bad fortune for the accused.

The meeting was more or less over, even though it had, they supposed, hardly begun. They agreed to defend the camp, to sweep out in a great arc through the city, wreaking havoc and exacting revenge in the aftermath of the police raid. They agreed to fight until the end, to get arrested peacefully, to build massive barricades from the Christmas decorations the city had piled up in a nearby alley, to booby trap their tents, to broadcast their plight to the world and ask for international solidarity and an investigation by the UN, to curse and shriek and lob projectiles at the police, to commandeer vehicles and leave them in the streets surrounding and use them to block the various approaches to the plaza, to do some things they didn’t need to talk about, to get confused and panicked and go home and lie down next to their children and wonder what the fuck really happened.

It was dinnertime in the plaza and, in general, in the neighborhoods that surrounded it. From the kitchen area, a vaguely curried steam began to drift in their direction, the sounds of metals and ceramics and other materials banging against each other suddenly sharper in the evening chill. The camp provisioned itself largely from the leavings of the moneyed classes—that is, from the materials thrown into dumpsters by specialty and health food markets, which usually consisted of various fad foods that had sat on the shelves until their sell-by date: kimchi beef jerky and cool ranch kale chips, goji berries, pickled fiddlehead ferns, asparagus-flavored vegan ice cream, paleo cookies, bison meat, duck eggs, and ginseng lemonade. To this they added staples that they purchased, dumpstered or stole: day-old breads, rice, lentils, and beans. Farmers would bring them whatever vegetables they couldn’t sell at the markets, and their supporters would order them pizzas at all hours of the day. Once during a standoff with the cops, two different pizza delivery persons stood on the other side of the line of police, swaying under stacks of pizza boxes so high only their hats were visible. Some of them tried and failed to get the crowd chanting “Let my pizza go! Let my pizza go!” It was difficult to move beyond donut jokes when it came to humor in the face of the police. They would receive giant black trash bags full of donuts from the nearby shops, and though eating them was one possibility, many preferred instead to lob them toward the police, borne aloft by various taunts.

Cooking for the motley hundreds that came to eat was not unlike one of those cooking competition shows, in which contestants were given the most improbable combination of elements and forced to improvise something not only edible but enjoyable. Constrained optimization, wasn’t that what the economists called it? They remembered that from college, but also from the time they’d spent in prison. They’d gather together whatever commissary goods their cellmates had lying around—salsa, soy sauce, potato chips, ramen, pepperoni—dump them into a big trash bag, and then cook everything by sticking the positive and negative wires of a stripped power cord into the bag. It was faster than a microwave and the bag never melted, though who knows what kinds of chemicals leached into their food. The food tonight had the virtue, compared to their prison meals, of maintaining the integrity of its component parts: a peasant stew of heirloom beans and texturized soy protein, enlivened with cilantro someone claimed had been stolen from the city manager’s backyard garden; a dish the cooks called “satanic goat” that was made with some sort of meat in a sauce somewhere between vindaloo and Korean bbq and made, somehow, from fig newtons; a salad of buckwheat, macadamia nuts, and mulberries; an alcoholic punch that was the result of various juices fermented in camp; a cannabis fudge that was so dangerously narcotic that in the fudge had become camp slang for extremely intoxicated.

They sat and ate in clumps of various sizes and densities, radiating outward from the kitchen along crooked paths they had lined with old pallets and straw to keep the place from becoming a total swamp. They sat and ate on a collection of debased and half-functioning furniture so various as to give one a sense that truly anything was possible, the contents of a hundred broken-necked apartments spilled out into the lamplit visibilities of the night. This was perhaps what was most radical about what they were doing, this opening, this becoming visible, of what it took to live, to survive, to flourish even. It was one thing to turn the world upside down, but as it happened and as so many revolutions had shown, it was pretty easy for life to go on as it had before with everyone walking on the ceiling instead of the floor. It was another thing altogether to turn the world inside out, to put on the surface all of those daily and habitual things that were normally run through the inside of buildings, hidden away like wiring and pipework. Here, the roots were exposed, submitted for inspection, and though they were not necessarily changeable immediately, at least one could see what it would mean to actually live another way, what it would mean to substitute for a division of labor in which some of them did one thing and then others did another, more pleasant thing a division of tasks in which they were always doing various things all the time and never relegated to taking out the trash or cleaning pots for all eternity, what it would mean to organize things without compulsion, without either carrot or stick, incentive or punishment. The result was a total shitshow, of course, one that showed nothing so much as their total inability to do anything without the fists of the puppet masters of money and violence clenched around their internal organs, forcing their speech and action. There were problems for which they had no solution, problems that could not be solved on the basis of a patch of grass and a pile of food. They needed to expropriate everything around them, and even then they’d need to construct some things that weren’t available and only when no one could make it impossible for someone else to live except by submitting themselves to another would it be possible for them to be themselves, to be neither one of nor one with them but simply them, different both inside and out and at any moment.

One of them had, while they were eating dinner and as illustration of what they were saying or thinking, grabbed the ass of one of them, not just once but twice and maybe other times as well and said something about sluts or cunts or whatever when confronted. Another one of them had punched that one in the face or maybe pushed or dragged them by the shirt to the edge of the camp and this was no doubt better than setting up a police force and putting people in prison or taking away all their money but it wasn’t exactly a solution they could take pride in, one of them thought. It was a matter of survival, necessity, another said, while another one of them turned his back and walked away, shaking his head. Fuck that dude. A goddamn shame. Banishment, one of them said, was only a solution in a world in which there was a here and a there, but what would you do when every there was a here?

One of them had a date, by which they meant a client, somewhere out there in the world of pure and unending dates and times, the world into which the ass-grabber had been banished, a world in which some people who were not them had faces that were asses and others had asses that were faces, a world of asses and ass-grabbers and a few other types of people in between.

Another one of them needed to go back to their apartment and get high by themselves and sit there, in the fudge, drawing weird doodles.

One of them wanted to get home in time to put their kids to sleep.

One of them had to go work a shift at the bar.

There were so many things that made them one, that made them one of them, one of those, one whose. They came from different places, from different thems, and they lived in a world in which, through a series of social mediations few of them could explain, their life-chances were violently altered as if by certain properties of the wavelengths of visible light reflected off their skin or certain facial features but really by the meanings that others made from these things, not to mention the ways that they talked and carried themselves and the varying positions their ancestors had occupied and the collective legacy of these things in their ideas of the world, and by virtue of these differences a cop might, in the exact same situation, choose to shoot one of them or just yell stop to another, and this was something they weren’t good at talking about, or that they were, but not with each other. Some of them had grown up in this place, and others hadn’t, and many of the people who hadn’t grown up in this place had lives of comparative comfort and privilege, whatever their suffering and despite their totally reasonable reasons for wanting to burn it all down, though this only held true in the average, held true for them in general, for a general them, and when you got into specific cases it was pretty hard to know who was who. You couldn’t compare. Out there beyond the camp where the lives of some of them went on half-way or side-wise in one form or another with wages to earn and rent to pay, these wavelengths of light placed them in an antagonistic relationship to each other, at different ends of a long chain of economic transactions, so that the search that some of them did for a place they could afford to rent ultimately made it impossible for some of the others to afford anything at all, given the difference in what they earned. The solution of course at least in the near-term before they could create forms of free access and voluntary contribution such that the wavelengths of light had no bearing on what one could or could not have or do was to light more stuff on fire and break more windows and in other words make buying rental properties or homes in the area a risky proposition driving away people of comparatively comfortable background who weren’t committed to total war on the existent but so far they had only maybe caused the increase to halt and some investment projects to collapse but rent wasn’t exactly going down and it was already too high and it wasn’t clear how many windows maybe all of them they’d have to break to cause the rent to go down. This occasionally produced a form of insanity in which an awareness of the ways they both were and were not complicit with the very things they wanted to destroy led to an ultimately self-serving and pointless politics of guilt and shame and circular firing squads that the rest found baffling, having lived all their lives around people who casually misunderstood and disregarded the insult and injury they endured and clearly didn’t know what the fuck was going on. They could take these things as they came. It didn’t mean the end of the goddamn world.

This was the hour when the camp swelled but also when the rate of turnover of participants increased; from all sides, human particles bombarded its edges, packing everyone closer together. The force with which these newcomers struck the camp meant that some fraction of them would, as they passed toward the center, dislodge a human particle or two, now sent caroming off into the city. They were never the same at any two moments, and this was what allowed them to be them, to be all of them, not accidentally or as a matter of proximity or received category but with some sort of will to remain together provisionally, despite it all and against the odds. Inasmuch as these intentions exceeded the separateness of each one of them, however, they also preserved it. This wasn’t just a problem with pronouns, though, but with the ways their lives were arranged, so that in order to survive they had to submit to various group identities—worker, student, parent—but also to struggle desperately against these identities, except that most of the forms of individuality and autonomy open to them were among the least free and unique things they could do. It was a cliché, perhaps, but they could only really be themselves in specific conditions of social belonging. These conditions did not exist for them, inasmuch as they still had to go to work and go home and raise their kids in the isolation of their apartments and families, moving from right-angled structure to right-angled structure while holding important rectangular objects in their hands. But they had an intuition of what such conditions might look like; they could be read off the scratches and dents they left on the boundaries they crashed against furiously, by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the tens of thousands; they could be descried in the sudden opacities of the window glass as it lay shattered on the ground: a situation in which their access to the necessaries of life was entirely unrestricted and their contribution to the production of such entirely voluntary. Who would they be, then, under such conditions? Who wouldn’t they be? They would be anyone but no one too.

Maybe it was clearest in the sort of terrible and otherwise embarrassing dancing that emerged in the amphitheatre at this time. Dancing was a privileged metaphor for the benevolent forms of collectivity they imagined, collectivity that allowed generous room for infinite shades and varieties of individual expression but also constantly shifting relations, couplings and triplings and other natural number groupings and comings and goings comradely or erotic or propinquitous. Each dancer expresses in their own idiom a rhythm common to each, as it is said, reacting not only to the music but to the expressions of other dancers. The metaphor is inapt, however, inasmuch as a song is something external to the collectivity. More accurate would be a situation in which the music were itself produced by the dancing to the music the dancing produced. But how could something aesthetically pleasing emerge from such a situation—how could they avoid the flailing-as-if-electrocuted spasms they might produce in the face of such feedbacks? Perhaps this could happen only if something were truly at stake, unlike dancing, their sensitivity to each other conditioned by the fact that they depended on each other for survival. Dancing was limited, then, as a metaphor but they worked with what they had; they made use of the things they could make use of, and took their enjoyment where it could be found and at this time of night that meant alcohol mostly but also shaking their asses and their faces in the wash of loud music. Amplification was everything. In some senses, that’s what they were, a machine for amplifying antagonism, receiving a signal, a packet of electrical pulses that would be modulated, transformed, and turned into a powerful series of waves that could be heard and felt by everyone in the vicinity. They had massive amps and speakers and controllers connected to an array of batteries and their ability to flood their environment with sound was treated as a miracle and greeted with cheers and shouts of joy. Frequently their assemblies would dissolve into dance parties. They had a preference for funk, disco, old school rap, and contemporary top 40. And Michael Jackson, who somehow managed to hover behind or over or at the edges of all these categories. When the giant meetings where they would discuss and sometimes decide on issues either relevant or maybe not so relevant to their perseverance together ran aground on insoluble contradictions or simply became interminable, some of them would try to end the meeting by yelling “Michael Jackson! Michael Jackson!” Then they might comply by loading up the digital file for “Smooth Criminal or “Rock with You” and accept in this way the impossibility of resolution or perhaps that resolution was unnecessary, except as severally differentiated bodies flailing expressively together in a loosely defined area.

Would they, years later, after probably having definitely lost, still be able to hear the flailing feeling still vaguely expressed there somehow? It was one thing to try to figure out who they were when there were some people just standing around taking pictures and then a bunch of other people taking out the trash charging the police line or pulling their friends out of a police tackle or cooking a meal but it was different when the ones standing around and looking were looking back at things from a few years later, when they were them, they were their own spectators, no longer watching the riot unfold from a news helicopter above them but from the above of some indeterminate after. And not just what did happen but what was happening, too, so that they saw mixed together on the screens the things they did and the things they became. On one screen, they flee in half moons from the explosions. On one screen, they are being evicted from the place they’ve lived in for a decade. On one screen, they are crouched behind a shield painted to look like the cover of a book, the title of which produces a kind of dramatic or perhaps even cosmic irony. On the one screen, they are finding out that another one of them has been killed by a boyfriend or an associate or capitalism. They are walking away dejected. They are bleeding from the head. They are out of their mind. They are realizing that any them is the them of one of them, an imagining of what all of them thought together that is really the thought of one of them about all of them, a thought possible approximately on the basis of a moment they shared but in hindsight ridiculous, fissured, contradictory, impossible. On one screen, one screen, and another, and another. On one screen, the cracked screen of an ATM.

Related Posts

Labors in a Field I push the sharp edges of the shovel into the scorched, dry dirt. The ground gives way and a stinking clump of earth slides out. I dig in the earth because I must tend to the plants, and I must tend to the plants because I work in the field in which the plants grow. Such is my job. The plants gro...
Gaza Fractures Is there a characteristically Gazan sentence? Could it be this one from Asmaa al-Ghul’s recent short story “You and I,” published in The Book of Gaza (Comma Press, 2014): “Drops of morning dew evaporate taking the pain with them, because we are together”? Or this sentence from Zaki al ’Ela’s 1980 st...

Jasper Bernes

Jasper Bernes is the author of two volumes of poetry, Starsdown (2007) and We Are Nothing and So Can You (2015), and a scholarly book, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization (forthcoming, Stanford UP). Poems, essays, and other writings can be found in Modern Language Quarterly, Radical Philosophy, Endnotes, Lana Turner, The American Reader, Critical Inquiry, and elsewhere. Together with Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover, he edits Commune Editions. He lives in Berkeley with his family.