Some have likened the Occupy Movement to the anti-Vietnam War student protests of the '60s. In my mind, the movement has the even more earthy smell to it of the Freak Power movement fomented in the early '70s by gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the difference being that Freak Power was on the ballot.
Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist and a voice for a very weird time in American history. Riding the wave of the counter-culture movement, Thompson was as much a chronicler of the drug-powered, halcyon days of late '60s-era politics as he was a part of it. His great experiment in writing and activism really melded when Thompson and other freaks of Aspen, Colorado, coalesced around the idea of uniting the youth disenchanted by Nixonian politics and trying to bring them back to the fold of activism and engagement with government.
The key point to Freak Power, as Thompson argued, wasn’t to convince youth to get involved in politics because the system works but to get involved in politics because it doesn’t work—a kind of Fuck You to the system, which sought to put freaks into the system not to work from within, but to take down from within. The “Freak Power in the Rockies” from Thompson’s classic The Great Shark Hunt paints a picture of individuals who couldn’t give two shits about politics -- not because they were apolitical, but because they refused to believe politics was truly fair.
“Aspen is full of freaks, heads, fun hogs and weird night people of every description ... but most of them would prefer jail or the bastinado to the actual horror of registering to vote.”
While I would not be so quick to paint the Occupy movement with a similar brush that draws its motivations from a palate of peace, drugs and personal liberty—what seems very clear is that Occupiers, by virtue of their protest, are also a group who previously felt the political system is too rigged to fail … or succeed, for that matter.
“This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all -- not in the literal sense -- but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks,” Thompson wrote. “We argue, we protest, we petition -- but nothing changes.”
Nevertheless, Thompson and cohorts decided that a Freak platform could maybe bring freaks out to vote. In their presumptive bid to get Colorado attorney “Joe Edwards, a 29-year-old head, lawyer and bike racer from Texas” elected Mayor of Aspen in the 1969 election, the Freak Party campaigned on, shall we say, a bold platform.
“Our program was to basically drive the real-estate goons completely out of the valley … ” Thompson wrote. “No more land rapes. No more busts for ‘flute-playing’ or ‘blocking the sidewalk’ … fuck the tourists, dead-end the highway, zone the greedheads out of existence and in general create a town where people could live like human beings instead of slaves to some bogus sense of Progress that is driving us all mad.”
He was a completely ridiculous candidate on an even more ridiculous platform—who lost the election for mayor by only 6 votes out of roughly 1,200 votes cast.
Flash forward to 2011, and freak progeny are everywhere. They themselves are not necessarily freaks and, in fact, can be very respectable, average people who have given up on government that panders too much to moneyed special interests. Some of these folks are still freaks, of course, but what is uniting for many of them is the feeling that they needed to do something outside of the system -- even if it meant making their own system.
Salt Lake City Occupier John Varn described the idea of Occupy as its own community -- beyond warm, fuzzy talk that was meant to reflect the idea that the former Pioneer Park camp (dismantled by the Salt Lake City Police Department in November) was literally its own community, designed to operate outside of the greater Salt Lake City community and government. The camp was meant to be something that didn’t operate from within the system but outside of it. As Varn described it, the camp sought to be self-sufficient and not reliant on help from political elites. “It's bringing what we need from the bottom up,” Varn said. “We don’t go to the few to get something for the many. To do something, we go to the many.”
Occupier and former City Weekly reporter Jesse Fruhwirth considered the camp valuable as “post-apocalyptic training,” arguing that it was a camp of protest but also training on rebuilding community when the corruption of government brings down American society.
“Personally why I think Occupy is so important is because our system is going to collapse,” Fruhwirth said. “We’re going to be living in a resource-poor environment something like the [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] experienced after their collapse. Coming up with different ways to form a community not based on our identical system is very important. I feel like I was practicing for the Mad Max future of America.”
Hearkening back to weirder times, the community Thompson and his Freak Power acolytes sought after certainly would have been different, had their leaders been elected. When Thompson later ran for sheriff of Aspen in 1970, he campaigned to rename the city “Fat City” to discourage development and to rip up asphalt streets and sod them over, among other reforms. The effort failed, but amazingly, not by much, and if nothing else, it certainly shook up the political-power structure in Aspen.
The same could be said of what would happen if the Occupy movement got behind the idea of putting forward a candidate. Now I know we’re talking about a leaderless movement here, a hydra of populist indignation with a million different heads, already preoccupied in trying to move forward in the same direction, but remember, the idea of Freak Power is more about thwarting the system than electing a representative to work inside it. And with the Occupy SLC movement still trying to remain relevant since their eviction from Pioneer Park, why not occupy the ballot?
Occupy could easily draw a name out of a hat to get a member run for any office they like—community council, legislature, governor, sheriff—and should that person be elected, they could go ahead and enact their own crazy laws that would clear a public space for the Occupation to return to its survivalist encampment, if they so desired.
Much like Peaceful Uprising at least shook up the 2010 elections by finding a challenger in Claudia Wright, who unsuccessfully sought to usurp Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, from his congressional seat for being too conservative, an Occupy candidate could be a wildcard in any election.
Would it be selling out? Hardly. If done right, it could be an occupation unto itself, a move that Thompson called “the Aspen technique”: “Neither opting out of the system or working within it … but calling its bluff, by turning its strength back on itself.”