The After Party, a post-Occupy political something that aims to test whether you can build a sustainable movement entirely around a pun, is bringing “Flash Mob Mutual Aid” to the city of Detroit tomorrow. The party’s website doesn’t go into detail about what this is, but to judge from the words that comprise the phrase, it’s suddenly and briefly helping people who haven’t asked for it (and then, since it’s “mutual,” perhaps expecting them to do something in return). “Flash” is unsustained, “mob” is undirected, and “mutual aid” is some vague form of well-intended assistance. Whatever it is, it’s largely about urban gardens, which are both the first thing listed as mutual aid in their manifesto, and the first priority for their weekend in Detroit.
Personally, I find it difficult not to immediately think of elderly Detroiters suddenly being descended on in their yards by a gang of the be-flanneled, who proceed to dig up their flowers and tear their house to pieces in the name of a community project. “Oh, no, that’s where I had planted my petun…” the lady murmurs in protest from the porch, as she is talked to about the future of urban gardening by one of the number resting on his shovel, while the others plant three packets of snap-peas in the poisoned Detroit soil. After that, they proceed to “rehabilitate” her blighted home, in the process breaking a window and apologizing profusely. After a morning’s work, everyone boards the bus back to New York, and our couple are left calling handymen to get a quote.
That may be uncharitable, but the After Party doesn’t offer much reassurance. It has a manifesto full of platitudes that, amazingly, makes 2011’s Occupy propaganda seem positively wonkish (conscious of its own tired rhetoric, the manifesto’s text desperately insists “This is not ironic. This is serious.”) Worse still, even as they retain Occupy’s aversion to specific programs, the party proposes to ditch the prior movement’s revulsion toward running for office. This seems exactly backwards: the problem with Occupy was that it never produced any actual interesting ideas, not that they had ideas but failed to run on them. Running empty phrases to fill congressional seats is precisely the system we already have. The few particulars the After Party does propose for the Detroit are insipid. They will clean up “debris.” They will serve food to the hungry. Of course, many community groups already do these things, and they’re not exactly a politically radical program (to put it another way: the leftist things they’re doing aren’t effective, and the effective things they’re doing aren’t leftist). Does the After Party have contacts with these groups? Have they figured out how they may be most useful? It’s unclear.
Elsewhere on the party’s website, in parts unrelated to their ominous descent on Detroit, there are tantalizing hints of a program. Most of it is of the general sort, that corruption will at last be ousted and communities listened to. One idea that is interesting is the proposal for a “time-bank for services,” that will pair those with talents and those with needs for it like a communist craigslist. But this is the sort of thing that requires very careful logistical working-out, and so far the After Party seems to be falling into the old Occupy trap of allowing graphic design to substitute for working the numbers.
Listing marijuana legalization first on the proposed ballot initiatives is also a mistake, deeply trivializing of the human rights issues of Medicaid expansion and minimum wage increases that are listed secondarily. One of the most cringeworthy sections of the website is on what they call “jail support,” which:
includes having a charged phone on hand so newly-released inmates can call friends and family, having sandwiches, coffee, and cookies on-hand when inmates walk outside, bandaging any wounds suffered during arrest or inside the jail, and a card with contact information for the nearest After Party district leaders.
It is true that many of the newly-released would probably enjoy a cookie or a sandwich. But reentry problems go far deeper than the provision of bandaids and snacks. For the 600,000 released from jails and prisons in the US each year, the wounds that need bandaging upon release are not generally the skull-fractures of pig-cops’ batons, but the devastating mark of a criminal record and its corresponding diminution of access to houses, jobs, and government assistance. Notably, the After Party platform focuses entirely on jails over prisons, suggesting a worldview shaped by the overnight stays of rounded-up activists rather than a serious horror at the millions-large New Jim Crow prison state.
On the surface then, the After Party seems, like Occupy, yet another sad paroxysm of today’s floundering, impotent Left. What’s there for a young revolutionary to do in 2014 America? Plant peas in Detroit and legalize pot. But that’s not to say it couldn’t redeem itself. Thinking about local government, and the uses that local political offices can have in enacting a left program, is a good start. The After Party suggests continuing to explore how local officials can aid in foreclosure relief for struggling families (although they also seem to think running candidates for county coroner is a good use of resources, because of a mistaken belief that it is still the coroner who has the sole power to arrest the local sheriff). They propose listening sessions to figure out where local government is failing, so that they can fix it, a suggestion that could work out well. Still, nearly every aspect of the After Party program is worrying, seemingly devised by those for whom speaking the slogan is the same as performing the act (“Reclaim our streets!” they shout, marching down to the cul-de-sac and back before going home). I wince thinking of the Detroiters about to have the After Party manifesto enacted upon their neighborhoods, if only for a weekend.