The Dirt, or, Matter Out of Place

In her 1966 book Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas famously explains dirt as “matter out of place.” Dirt does not index an objective category of pathogens or pollutants she suggests, but rather the designation of “dirt” indexes a contravention to a social order, and by extension, its boundaries. That which transgresses boundaries of a given order is dirt or dirty, thereby reaffirming the validity, naturalness, and purity of that which remains within. Perhaps needless to say, the occupiers are matter out of place. And, for an 18-hour period between the afternoon of Thursday October 13th and Friday October 14th, it seemed that “dirt” might finally send them back where they belong.

On Thursday morning, OWS received a memo from Mayor Bloomberg stating that Brookfield Office Properties, the owner of Zuccotti Park, was demanding that protesters evacuate the following day for a cleaning to start at 7 am, after which they could return. When I arrived in Liberty Park (as OWS has renamed Zuccotti – see Dispatch 1) on Thursday afternoon, an emergency General Assembly (GA) had been called to discuss the memo and the movement’s response. The tone of the meeting was urgent and strategic, with content limited to discussion of the OWS strategy in response to this memo.

The Facilitation Working Group explained to those of us present that Occupy Austin (Texas) had been thrown out of their space in the wake of a verbatim letter. The Austin occupiers had taken the letter’s contents in good faith, evacuated for the cleaning, and were never let back in. City governments and landowners had also used the dirt(y) tactic successfully in Madrid and Barcelona. With this accumulated historical knowledge, OWS declared that the cleaning notification was a pretext for eviction, and developed a plan to effectively call Bloomberg’s bluff. We were not leaving. “This is an occupation,” one presenter declared, “not an invited picnic. We don’t need permission to be here.” The rest of the emergency GA was spent laying out the plan.

First, some background on “dirt” in Liberty Park. As the occupation began, OWS requested port-a-potties and dumpsters from the city. These requests were denied, arguably to hasten a situation in which the city could label the occupation a public health hazard. And yet, with neither on-site bathrooms nor adequate waste facilities, the Sanitation Working Group and the citizens of Occupy Wall Street have kept Liberty Park remarkably clean. Not only is the ground free of trash, but there is a recycling system in place as well. The kitchen, which feeds up to 2,000 people per day, not only maintains astonishing cleanliness in service and disposal, but filters used dish-water through a plant and stone gray water filtration system, using the cleaned water to nourish the park’s flowers.

With these practices of as-clean-as-possible living already in place, the OWS response to Bloomberg and Brookfield’s cleaning order set out to prove that “dirt” or sanitation was not in fact the issue, but rather that the occupation’s contravention of social norms–matter out of place–was at stake. The Sanitation Working Group (who had spearheaded the effort to keep the park clean from the beginning) requested that the General Assembly approve the release of $3,000 to pay for environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies, mops, brooms, and the rental of a pressure washer to launch our own park-wide cleaning effort. The GA reached consensus easily, and we all pledged to spend the rest of the afternoon and night cleaning the park. The Storage, Inventory, and Shipping Working Group opened up their nearby storage facility (donated by the Teacher’s Union) for people’s individual belongings, and groups of people moved the park’s contents there while the rest of us joined Sanitation for the evening.

The Direct Action Working Group–generally tasked with organizing marches and other non-violent actions of civil disobedience–then presented their strategy for the next morning’s visit, where we all anticipated not only Brookfield’s cleaning crew, but also a police descent into the park to enforce the cleaning order and potential eviction. The original memo specified that Brookfield’s group would clean the park in thirds, and each third would take four hours, suggesting a twelve hour evacuation. Direct Action suggested that we facilitate the cleaning according to these specifics, but without leaving the park. We would simply occupy the park two-thirds at a time, clearing one-third for Brookfield’s cleaning to proceed. That way we would comply with the request without ceding ground. Those who were willing (depending on “arrestability levels” — the acknowledged varying consequences of arrest across class, race, education, and gender lines) would sit in rows to divide the park in thirds, arm in arm in a “soft-lock.” Behind them another row would stand in soft-lock, and behind them the rest of those willing to stay in the park would stand with signs, drums, etc. Those who did not want to risk arrest were of course free to leave the park, including the legal option of taking up half the sidewalk around its borders.

With the plan in place, we cleaned for hours. As news spread of the potential eviction, New Yorkers streamed down to Liberty Park, and the cleaning thus served as a visual indicator of dirt-as-pretext as we all mopped and scrubbed. To highlight the contradiction, the Public Relations Working Group had a 6′ x 3′ sign professionally made, which they displayed in the front of the park.

Cleaning and strategizing stretched into the night. Those of us who were willing to risk arrest attended de-escalation trainings, drilled the direct action plan, and wrote the number for the National Lawyer’s Guild on the inside of our arms. By 1 am the park was clean, the direct action plan was in place, and it was pouring rain. Nearly one hundred of us occupied the McDonald’s across the street from Liberty Park for several hours (yes — the daily contradictions of occupation) while others danced or huddled in the rain.

By 3 am the rain cleared. Expecting police intervention as early as 4 am, we streamed back into Liberty Park. Anxious meetings were going on everywhere. Much of the energy was nervous: could we trust our fellow occupiers to remain non-violent? Could we trust our fellow occupiers to follow the plan? Others talked about occupying another park, forfeiting this location. Those hours were uneasy and scattered. Few slept. But slowly the energy of the park changed. New Yorkers from all neighborhoods began streaming to the park.


Union rank and file milled around in the dim dawn in yellow and purple T-Shirts. I met a group of people who had come from Boston in the wake of the potential eviction news, and a man who had used his frequent flier miles to buy a last-minute flight from Chicago.

Between 4 and 5 am the park surged with people and positive feeling. Soon it was so crowded that it was impossible to move. We stood together and chanted: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” Individuals got up and spoke over the people’s microphone (see Dispatch 2) about the movement, about economic justice, about solidarity, about love and the importance of the moment. At 6 am Facilitation announced that those for whom arrest would be too risky were invited to leave the park and form a ring around the outside. I did not see a single person leave, though the area was already surrounded by a wall of people.

And then, the announcement. Shortly after 6 am, OWS received official word that the cleaning had been postponed. Brookfield thought it could find a way to “work with” the occupiers. Jubilation. The park erupted in a roar of triumph. Dirt had not been a sufficient pretext. New Yorkers and citizens from around the country and the world declared that the occupation was not matter out of place, but rather was stretching the boundaries of our current social order in directions that an overwhelming number of people support.

I would like to suggest, however, before we congratulate ourselves, that we be attentive to the other ways in which even those of us who support the movement are often insistent on its dirtiness in other ways–the ways in which it remains stubbornly “out of place” by refusing to have identifiable leaders, a narrow set of demands, or a unified plan of action. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Bernard Harcourt differentiated OWS’ tactics as political disobedience, vs. civil disobedience: “Civil disobedience” he writes, “accepted the legitimacy of political institutions, but resisted the moral authority of resulting laws. Political disobedience, by contrast, resists the very way in which we are governed: it resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period.” Reminiscent of anthropologist Partha Chatterjee’s distinction between civil and political society, Harcourt’s argument is an important one, and echoed in less academic language on Occupy Oakland’s homepage: “Our only demand is an invitation: join us!”

While I too have struggled with my own normative assumptions about what “effective” political mobilization looks like, and had a tremendous amount of anxiety earlier in my participation, OWS has helped me understand ethnographically — in a lived way — the power of effects over plans, practices over strategies. I would encourage all of us to expand what is imaginable with Occupy Wall Street, and to acknowledge the fundamental shortcomings of only focusing on a liberal democratic electoral platform, for example. When matter out of place is defended by so many within a social order, it is that social order that is showing signs of change.

(Top photo by Michael Ralph).

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