It’s been a week since I was in New York City visiting the camp in Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Park) where the Occupy Wall Street movement was in full swing.
I was struck mostly by their process, but also by the earnest and deliberate attention that these people, young and old are giving to the chance they have to open discourse on the big issues of wealth disparity and social equity in America.
When I was there earlier in the week they were engaging in a participatory process to create their demands. It was as much about defining why they were there as anything else. But the fact is that many people are gathered there and supporting the occupation for various reasons. Mostly it is to draw attention to the vast disparities of wealth in the United States and the effect that is having especially on the poor and otherwise marginalized. There was a lot of conversation going on there last week within the group as well as between the group and the Wall Street workers. Surprising amount of joint discerning about what is really going on in America.
What is interesting about the movement there is that they eschew leaders of any kind. This is a traditional anarchist approach, and it’s being put into practice quite deliberately. There are many facilitators who are helping the group to decide themselves on what to say and do and so far the group has been very clear about non-violence and is even actively discouraging vandalism. I was in one meeting of the outreach team who were reporting on the controversial debate taking place about whether to mark subway maps with the local of the protest. in general, the group there wants to be very careful not to give the police any reason whatsoever to become violent with them. So they are staying away from anything that might be construed as violence or damage and are instead focusing on powerful speech, using their first amendment rights to talk about and explore what they stand for and what the issues are. There is no presence of the Black Bloc or other masked militants who have brought the wrath of the police state reigning down on protests here in Canada in recent years.
And there is is no clear single agenda, because the totality of the problems facing the USA cannot be summarized with a pithy statement of demands. They are not hijackers and they are not holding anything ransom. They are trying to figure out how to discuss and actively represent the malaise and serious economic, social and political issues going on in the USA systemically and accurately. So much of this analysis and practice lies outside of the mainstream of American thought and debate that it is hard to say it all without seeming crazy. But the USA is coming apart in fundamental ways – even the Wall Street folks don’t dispute the fundamental economic analysis – and standing for possibilities is hard, hard work right now.
It is inspiring to watch them in General Assembly, where twice a day they work through an agenda of decisions using “the people’s mic” as their amplification system. The police have banned megaphones of any kind and so they speak to the crowd by repeating what the speaker has just said. This has the double effect of ensuring everyone can hear as well as bringing a quiet shared tone to everything. It is slow and orderly discourse. When the general Assembly isn’t meeting, the place runs in a big general Open Space – type gathering. Anyone who wants to call a session calls out “mic check!” and everyone within hearing distance repeats the phrase. When enough people are paying attention, an announcement is made, a time and place chosen and the group goes back to work. It is beautiful to watch.
All people are going to have to challenge themselves to reach across divides if there is any hope of finding solutions to the current and looming crises. At Wall Street many protesters and many bankers were willing to do just that and many many conversations are happening there between suits and sleeping bags. Very little anger at all. They set the bar high for civil discourse despite looking scruffy.