Occupy This!

Occupy This!

By Judy Rebick
Penguin Canada, November 30, 2011, $3.99

Zuccotti Park is located in my least favourite neighbourhood in New York City, halfway between Ground Zero and the Stock Exchange. It’s usually a grey and lifeless part of the city inhabited by gawking tourists and rushing traders. The moment I stepped off the subway, however, I noticed a difference. Lively discussions were going on everywhere, one on one and in groups. Even before I stepped into the encampment, something felt different. It took me a while to understand what it was.

I arrived at Zuccotti Park, the site of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), on Sunday evening, October 16, two days after protesters had miraculously avoided eviction. The day before there had been massive global demonstrations in solidarity with them. Occupy sites were sprouting in cities across North America and around the world.

I’d been invited to New York by my friend Velcrow Ripper, a filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn. Velcrow and I became friends when he was shooting his most recent film, Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action, and I was researching my most recent book, Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political. Both of us saw a series of new characteristics emerging in protests and movements around the world: horizontality, or non-hierarchy, participatory democracy, a convergence of environmental and social justice issues, and the increasing involvement of people with a spiritual approach to activism, or what Velcrow calls spiritual activism. Whereas he saw it through a spiritual lens, I saw it through a political one. In our conversations we realized we were seeing the same thing, only using different language to describe it.

I arrived at Velcrow’s place in Brooklyn around 6 PM, and he suggested we go eat in the park. “Really?” I asked. “Don’t they want to feed people who need the food?”

“No,” he laughed. “They want to feed everyone.” That was my first clue. There’s no charity here, no soup kitchen. Everyone who arrives is part of the community and everyone in the community gets fed. It’s sharing, not charity; solidarity, not handouts. And the food was fabulous. We ate on paper plates and sat on the edge of what might have been a fountain to eat it.

Velcrow pointed out a rake-thin young woman with bleached blond hair and tattoos everywhere I could see. Lauren, who’s about 20 years old, joined the clean-up team when she got to Zuccotti Park because she wanted to do something practical. When the mayor announced plans to evict OWS, claiming the park was dirty and unhealthy, Lauren and her crew moved into action. They mobilized hundreds of New Yorkers to come down and help clean. Every so often throughout the rainy night Lauren would stand in the midst of her cleaning squad and, through the human mic (where people repeat whatever the speaker says so everyone can hear), give a passionate rallying cry. “This young woman who’d never done anything like this before,” Velcrow said, “became a major leader of the successful resistance against the eviction. She told me that being here has completely transformed her life.”

The next day I heard a similar story more directly. We arrived at the site in early afternoon and immediately noticed a crowd gathering near the library. Every Occupy site, following the model in New York, has a library, a food service area, medics, and a comfort zone for anything you need to be warm or dry.

“I heard Noam Chomsky was coming today. Must be him,” said Velcrow. But when we walked over it wasn’t Chomsky. It was two African-American men — a tall, wiry man in his sixties and a shorter, broad-chested man in his forties — having a passionate and animated debate about whether making an alliance with white people in these circumstances could work. The older man had been going around trying to discourage the younger men from thinking the alliance-building in the park could really accomplish anything. More and more people gathered around while they argued.

The man in his forties, who turned out to be Malik Rhasaan, founder of Occupy the Hood, a subset of OWS that organizes people of colour in their neighbourhoods with methods learned from OWS, was taking the older man on: “I hear you, brother. I know what we’ve suffered too. I respect that you were there during the civil rights movement. But this is different. Now they [white people] are hurting too. They’re feeling what we’ve been feeling for generations. Don’t tell these brothers not to hope that this can work. This can work. It has to work. We need it to work.”

Malik talked about how his daughter had decided to join the army: “My daughter is risking her life so she can get a job. That’s so wrong. I have to do something.” Later Malik, who we learned was a 49-year-old construction worker from Queens, told us he had come down to OWS because he wanted to do something about his kids’ future.

“There weren’t many brothers and sisters here the first week when I came, but I felt welcomed,” he said. “I didn’t feel barriers to my participation at all. So I called a friend in Detroit and we decided to bring more people down here by starting Occupy the Hood.” The tactic worked, and now there are Occupy the Hood groups around New York and across the country, building participation of people of colour in the Occupy movement and making it look a lot more like the 99 per cent it wants to represent.

But what astonished me was when Malik said, “I found my voice here.” I’ve rarely heard a more passionate and persuasive speaker, and he’d never done anything like that until just four weeks earlier. That’s part of the genius of the Occupy movement.

Thomas Paine, a father of the American Revolution and an important democratic theorist, pointed out in his 1791 essay Rights of Man that “It appears to general observation, that revolutions create genius and talents; but those events do no more than bring them forward.” The democracy that Paine imagined would bring forward the same genius of ordinary people every day. Of course, it didn’t happen like that.

In many ways the Occupy movement is creating the kind of democracy Paine imagined centuries ago. But more than that, the encampments also provide the sense of community that neo-liberalism, the latest stage of capitalism, has destroyed. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families,” in her argument against the idea of collective responsibility for one another through government.

Like any major new social movement, Occupy Wall Street seemed to come out of nowhere. “What do they want?” the media chorus asked. I heard it in the 1960s and again in the 1970s, when women began to bridle against the invisible chains that bound us. Van Jones, a 42-year-old African-American environmental justice activist who was forced to resign from the Obama administration because of his radical history, said it best. Jones began his address to OWS protesters on October 10 by saying he was used to a “real mic.”

“This is a real mic,” someone yelled back. Jones laughed and quickly got into the call and response rhythm:

“People are asking: What are we here to get?”

“What are we here to get?” the crowd repeated.

“We are not here to get anything,” he answered.

“We are not here to get anything,” they said with a tiny breath of hesitation, perhaps anticipation.

“We are here to give everything,” he said with a brilliant smile.

“We are here to give everything,” the crowd repeated, more enthusiastically now.

“We are here to give everything now,” he repeated, in what was becoming a seamless chant with the occupiers.

“We’re here to give everything to the people from whom you’ve stolen everything,” he concluded. Everyone raised their hands in the wagging-fingers motion that’s equivalent to applause at Occupy sites.

And what’s astonishing, even to the occupiers, is how much they’re giving to build these communities — how generous they are, how loving. So many people have told me they’re getting only two hours sleep a night but have never been happier. The Occupy sites may be what Martin Luther King called a beloved community.

The human mic, also called the people’s mic, is one such example of community-building. Because they’re not allowed to use amplification in the Zuccotti Park site, occupiers repeat whatever the speaker is saying. They get people’s attention by shouting “Mic check!” When I was there, the General Assembly was a twice-daily gathering of everyone on site. It was so large that things had to be repeated twice to be heard. (The first time I saw this technique was in 1999 in Seattle, where seven hundred people were arrested for protesting the World Trade Organization.)

But at Occupy Wall Street they made a virtue of necessity — people have to listen and take in what is being said. Everyone is engaged through this active listening. If people don’t like what’s being said, they don’t repeat it. It might be a little on the side of mob rule, but it’s delightful to anyone who has ever had to shut down a boring or abusive speaker. Finally, at Wall Street speakers are restricted to two minutes. If they go over that limit, they have to get approval from the group. No blowhards allowed. The human mic is now used in Occupy encampments and events around the world, even in places where amplification is available. It has a spiritual feeling, a little like the call-and-response in some churches or the chanting in various religious traditions. It provides an actual feeling of interconnectedness that’s surprisingly powerful.

As they experiment with creating alternative communities, the occupiers have already made an extraordinary impact. Within a few weeks, the discourse in the United States has been transformed. After decades of discussing only tax cuts, privatization, and the free market, everyone is finally talking about the inequality those policies have wrought. For years the Right has framed almost the entire discourse. Left-of-centre parties and non-governmental organizations have posed their demands through the lens of whether they’re “good for the economy” — in other words, whether Wall Street will like them.

Corporations have run rampant: shipping jobs offshore, avoiding taxes, exploiting their workers and the environment, paying their executives obscenely high salaries while trying to cut benefits and wages. When forces like the anti-sweatshop groups or the environmental movement emerged to challenge them effectively, corporations made cosmetic changes — a case of “greenwashing,” the environmentalists’ term for superficial commitment to sustainability in order to look good to customers.

But up until now, no major force has said “THIS IS WRONG.” The Occupy movement says there’s no democracy when a tiny elite has so much power and the vast majority are struggling to survive. We have to change the system. Top to bottom. The reason occupiers are having such an impact is that many people feel that something is radically wrong with the system but don’t think there’s anything that can be done to change it. What’s so intoxicating about the Occupy encampments, to anyone who’s willing to look and listen, is that the participants believe they can change the system. And they are changing it.

This is an excerpt from Occupy This! by Judy Rebick. Copyright © Judy Rebick, 2012. Reprinted by permission from Penguin Group (Canada), a Division of Pearson Canada Inc.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is the author of Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political and was the founding publisher of rabble.ca. She also holds the CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.