It’s a Carnival

I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for a post about “Occupy Wall Street” (jk). I’ve inserted a link here and there and have been looking for the best launching pad to begin a post of my own. I’ve read lots of comments making fun of the protesters or telling them to grow up, get a job, put down the pipe, you know, all the usual. That seems to be the reaction of some people on both sides of the aisle but I don’t think it’s very useful in understanding what’s going on. As these groups grow and spread out across the nation, assuming they do, I think it behooves us to understand what’s behind it and what, if anything, they’re trying to accomplish. I heard a young grad student speak to a local reporter last weekend here in LA and she said something that I’ve been thinking about ever since, which I loosely paraphrase as, we’re talking to each other and listening to each other. We don’t know if anyone else is listening or not and right now we don’t care. I thought that was really interesting for some reason and then this morning Matt Stoller authored a piece that explained what she meant without hearing her say it.

What do the people at #OccupyWallStreet actually want? What are their demands? For many people, this is THE question.

So let me answer it. What they want… is to do exactly what they are doing. They want to occupy Wall Street. They have built a campsite full of life, where power is exercised according to their voices. It’s a small space, it’s a relatively modest group of people at any one time, and the resources they command are few. But they are practicing the politics of place, the politics of building a truly public space. They are explicitly rejecting the politics of narrow media, the politics of the shopping mall. To understand #OccupyWallStreet, you have to get that it is not a media object or a march. It is first and foremost, a church of dissent, a space made sacred by a community. But like Medieval churches, it is also now the physical center of that community. It has become many things. Public square. Carnival. Place to get news. Daycare center. Health care center. Concert venue. Library. Performance space. School.

Few people, though an increasing number daily, have actually taken the time to go through a general assembly, to listen to what the people at #OccupyWallStreet actually want. General assemblies are the consensus-oriented group conversations at the heart of the occupations, where endlessly repeating the speaking of others is the painstaking and frustrating way that the group comes to make decisions.

There’s no electronic amplification allowed in Zuccotti Square. So the organizers have figured out an organic microphone system. A speaker says a half a sentence, everyone in earshot repeats, until the whole park can hear that half a sentence. Then the speaker says another half a sentence.

I felt completely included as part of a community forum even though I had not been a speaker. But what I realized is that the act of listening, embedded in the active reflecting of what the speaker was saying, created a far richer conversational space. Actually reflecting back to one another what someone just said is a technique used by therapists, and by pandering politicians. There is nothing so euphoric in a community sense as truly feeling heard. That’s what the general assembly was about, not a democracy in the sense of voting, but a democracy in the sense of truly respecting the humanity of everyone in the forum. It took work. It took patience. But it created a communal sense of power.

The premise of their politics is that #OccupyWallStreet isn’t designed to fit into your TV or newspaper. Nothing human really is, which is why our politics is so utterly deformed. It’s why they don’t want to be “on message” – what kind of human society can truly be reduced to a slogan? I’m not sure I agree with their political premise. But in the carnival they have created, in the liveliness and beauty and art and fun and utter humanity of it all, they make a damn good case.

42 Responses

  1. lms:I confess that I have read the article twice now, and still have no idea what he is talking about.

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  2. Yeah, it's a little out there. Everyone's trying to figure it out but no one really seems able to put their finger on it. That's why I find it so intriguing. I'm enjoying it vicariously though, as it takes me back to my old "sit-in" days.It reminds me of when I first went away to school in '68 and we used to gather on Sunday nights down in the common room with the only television in a 7 story dorm and watch the draft numbers come up. It was just a human experience sharing fear, loathing, confusion and a developing resolve. I'm probably reading more into it than is really there, but I kind of dig it. Maybe I'm taking my avatar a little too seriously.

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  3. Groovy, lms, groovy. 😉

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  4. lol, I'm trying to grow up but I think I'm on the downward curve now, yikes.

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  5. "watch the draft numbers come up"I don't know how to explain what a foreign concept that is to me. It just seems unfathomable.and with that, i'm off to MedPAC. see teh agenda here and let me know what topics are of interest. http://www.medpac.gov/meeting_search.cfm?SelectedDate=2011-10-06%2000:00:00.0

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  6. Thanks NoVA, I'll look at it and then look forward to you assessment.

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  7. Thanks, NVH.LMS, protest in Austin is like a picnic. Wait for October so you can live comfortably 24/7 on the street.Pre-organize for food and beverages and disposal.Have 4000+ descend on City Hall.No pepperspray here.City Council passes all your resolutions.Watch the OU game on portable TVs.Stay for a week.Like going to ACL or SXSW, there will probably be bands, too."Since the local movement began online several weeks ago, it has focused on the national message of corporate greed. Among the list of demands listed on the Occupy Wall Street website: restoration of the "living wage," free college education, a racial and gender equal rights amendment, and a fast-track process to end "the fossil fuel economy."Occupy Austin members have not made local demands of local officials. They have chosen City Hall largely because of the large public plaza outside, and the state Legislature is not in session.""City officials said no sleeping is allowed at the plaza."I really believe that in a democracy, people have to have the ability to demonstrate," Acevedo said. "As long as it's peaceful, we're going to be tolerant to a great extent."Although young people comprise a large chunk of the expected protesters, Welker said the event has a range of supporters: students, veterans, parents, seniors, first-time activists and experienced protesters.Austin resident Summer Minor , who has three children and works full time at a gas station, said she plans to rally because she wants to show solidarity with the people in New York."I want those in power to understand that we are here, that we are the ones they should be serving, that we will not be swept under the rug or brushed aside," said Minor, who is 30 and attends Austin Community College.The Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church initially viewed Occupy Austin with skepticism. To him, the movement seemed broad and rudderless. But when the 60-year-old went to a general assembly meeting, he was moved by the energy, passion and flurry of ideas being suggested. The endgame may not be clear, but he has hope that the movement will lead to reforms that benefit everyone."We all know we're headed for a cliff, and we can't seem to detach ourself from the momentum," said Rigby, who will be at the event. "They don't have the answers, but these young people know sitting on their hands and knees will do nothing."*********************8I've known Rigby for 35 years, since he was in seminary, and he always got by on his looks; sort of a liberal version of J. Danforth Quayle.His older brother is an antique dealer and a client of mine. Solid guy.

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  8. Thanks Mark. I think one of the commonalities between the protests of the 60's and now is a sense of powerlessness. Gatherings like this empower people. And generally, that's a good thing. Of course, the revolutionaries moved in during the late 60's and ruined the anti-war movement, we'll see who co-opts these occupiers.

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  9. Scott: To me, I read the article (having been through a few Gulf War 1 protests) is that they are doing their own thing, having some fun, feeling good about themselves, having a little bit of a party, going on record as being for some things and against other things, because they have a voice and should be heard.Essentially, they are doing what people do all the time in the comments sections of blogs, only doing it in meatspace. Overall, I like the attitude and the emphasis on good behavior and non-violence and, good golly, cleaning up after themselves. But, like many things in life, it's mostly for the temporary edification of the participants (perfectly legitimate) and the accrual of some war stories about how they fought the good fight, maybe meet some fellow travelers . . . is it going to transform Wall Street? No.

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  10. "I want those in power to understand that we are here, that we are the ones they should be serving, that we will not be swept under the rug or brushed aside," said Minor, who is 30 and attends Austin Community College.I don't want to be mean, but that individual sounds like the very essence of a person whose going to be swept under the rug and brushed aside. 30 and attends Austin Community College? I wish them all the best of luck.

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  11. "I don't know how to explain what a foreign concept that is to me. It just seems unfathomable."I did not understand the political impossibility of a draft in 1990. I was 90% sure there was going to be one, and thought there was a 50% chance I'd end up drafted. Hoped I'd be low on the list (flat feet) and was pleasantly surprised when the war just up and ended. Even so, I did not join any of the protests that were happening all around me, because they mostly appeared to be self-congratulatory narcissism to me, with a great deal of distortion and presumption regarding actual facts. And the cliches! Oh, the cliches!

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  12. Test from my iPhone. Just walked past freedom plaza in DC. Rally going on. Apparently not everyone likes lobbyists and K-street. This is disconcerting

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  13. In 1990 I was 12

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  14. Kevin:I have to admit that when I read references to things like "the politics of space" or that "the premise of their politics isn't designed to fit in your TV or newspaper", not only do I have no clue about what is being spoken of, I kind of doubt even the speaker does.Probably unfair of me, but there it is.

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  15. Lms, what does your idea of success for OWS look like?

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  16. NoVa- 1) Don't worry, westill love you 2) You're so old. I was 11 in 1990. Scott- I think the speaker knows what is being spoken of and is simply trying to distract from the fact that the protests don't have a unified message and are unlikely to change anything. So what you get as an attempt to romanticize the protest. Being a Toqueville guy myself, I see the benefit of a more engaged electorate but I'm too cynical to think these protesters will be similarly engaged 5-10 years from now. My question to our resident hippies and "get off my lawn hippy" anti-hippies is whether effective protests are as romantic as this author seems to paint the OWS movement.

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  17. Scott, you are surely correct, because the words have no meaning strung together. Something else is meant. The speaker may know what s/he would want to say if s/he could only speak plain English, but s/he cannot.

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  18. McWing, I have no idea what success will look like, it's not my protest. I think the fact that people are talking about it, even though somewhat cynically and condescendingly, is a good thing. People are mad and I believe a lot of our current crop of youth feel as if their future has been stolen. Maybe someone will notice and consider the fact that three years later, things haven't improved. You can't really expect people to quietly accept the fact that they've been ripped off. Oh, is that too strong of a word, maybe, maybe not.

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  19. Mark, you might be surprised to discover that Matt Stoller is a pretty accomplished guy, albeit a bit to the left of you guys. :)I guess you guys don't see any similarities between Tahrir square and this in the way it's been organized and run and the "space" that's being occupied? I didn't think he was being that obtuse.

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  20. I was 21 years old in 1990. That's a fun yardstick. How old were *you* in 1990? ;)"not only do I have no clue about what is being spoken of, I kind of doubt even the speaker does."I kinda get it. I've heard a lot of that. I think the speaker knows what they are talking about (it's mostly about framing the narrative, less practical analysis) but it's a very touch-feely analysis, without a great deal of practical meaning, at the end of the day. What success will look like: the participants feel good about themselves, have some war stories, makes some new friends. Rarely do even much larger protests make a huge difference–and if the idea is to defang Wall Street, I just don't see that happening. But, good luck to them!"Rally going on. Apparently not everyone likes lobbyists and K-street. This is disconcerting"Don't trust anybody over 30! Power to the people! I'd suggest you carry a taser with you or something. Just in case.

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  21. ashotJust from my past experience (it was a looong time ago), protests like this can be fun and entertaining, but also informative and challenging. The problem arises when someone comes along and ruins it either by disobeying the non-violent rules or cops getting a little over zealous. One or the other almost always occurs, then the romance is over, although the resolve sometime strengthens.

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  22. "I guess you guys don't see any similarities between Tahrir square and this in the way it's been organized and run and the "space" that's being occupied?"Actually, I had not thought of that. I still think referring to it as the "politics of space" is an odd way to get at that concept. I do really like this idea of space and it actually sets up a nice contrast where the little guy is given only a tiny amount of space in which to survive/flourish/grow while this other powerful sources are provided these large buildings/seats of power. Furthering the contrast the little guy keeps his tiny parcel of power clean and neat and respectful while corruption flourishes on the other side.

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  23. Lms, at my teaparty rallies, I suppose there is a "communal" aspect that draws some people, it's just alien to me, or, at least that doesn't draw me to a rally, but I acknowledge it is important for others. Ultimately, I wanted to use the teaparty as a way to influence the politics of the country. The only way we figured we could do that was electorally and financially. The vibe I get from this group is more anti-capitalist, which is anathema to me, so it makes me very negative on them.

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  24. McWing, I'm not so sure it's anti-capitalist as anti-banks and Wall Street, if we take them at their word. Weren't there members of the Tea Party who were unhappy with the bailouts of the banks? A lot of people on the left believe the financial capitalists made out quite well both during the housing boom and the bust, to the detriment of both citizens and non-financial capitalists like me. I thought the Tea Party shared some of that anger at the banks and Wall Street, but perhaps I'm wrong.

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  25. Y'all are babies. I was jumping out of airplanes for the Army in 1990. And here I thought I was the baby of the blog–I must be regressing like lms!

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  26. ashot, it is historically an aspect of protests going back a very long time that the space they occupy becomes a seat of power to them in just the symbolic way you've described. During the Vietnam protests a lot of public colleges felt threatened by masses of students and teachers taking over buildings and open areas. I'm not surprised it's a little too esoteric or even comical to others. There is a language among protesters that is somewhat lost in translation, lol. We saw the same thing recently in Wisconsin at the State House.

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  27. " I thought the Tea Party shared some of that anger at the banks and Wall Street, but perhaps I'm wrong."You are correct. Of course, certain people's opinions to the contrary, the Tea Party was a very large conglomeration of folks, many of whom were only unified by dissatisfaction with the status quo. When you're protesting Wall Street, there will, of course, be anti-capitalists–but even the proverbial broken clock is right twice a day.

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  28. Lms, agreed I and my fellow TeaBaggers were very much against any bailouts, and still are. We are against "crony capitalism" defined as using go er mention regulation to increase barriers to market. What we fully support is rampant, utterly chaotic Capitalism, and a return to a more personal meaning of caveat emptor versus an increasing reliance on our government to do it for us.

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  29. Go er mention is government.Stupid fat fingers.

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  30. LMS, I read "politics of space" and think "NASA".Some of you read it as a romanticization of a "place" as a symbol of a movement.Analyzing the column, not a sentence, it appears to express that there is no conventional media message because conventional media messages are too simplistic and somehow divorced of humanity, but passing half sentences along from the speaker to the perimeter of the crowd is empowering and a reinforcement of humanity.Sounds like a child's game of "telephone" to me.Reminds me of "Life of Brian", where Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is passed through the audience and on the perimeter folks are wondering why the cheesemakers are blessed.

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  31. What's interesting to me is that what started the "Arab Spring" was a guy in Algeria who set himself on fire due to, IMO, a government that was strangling capitalism.

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  32. Where's your pioneer spirit mark?McWing, I'm not comparing the content of the protests to the Arab Spring, I don't anyone could claim that. The similarities have to do with the relative youthfulness of the group, the public square and the so called amenities etc. Also, it's being spread through social media.I know it might all seem rather silly to an older (I include myself) group of well established professionals, but where's your youthful spirit?

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  33. LMS, if it generates a youth vote that is actually interested in civics that will be terrific. If it spreads through social media it will be winnowed to sound bites.OTOHAs you have noted,it will be ripe for co-option. BTW, I think TEA was co-opted, in part, judging by the different voices of TEA in TX during Medina's campaign, and TMW will agree with me, I think. I wish them well and hope they hit on a coherent theme, but I was only commenting on the report you quoted.The Austin demo looks like it will be fun for the 'utes.

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  34. I know mark, I was just teasing you. For some reason, I enjoyed the article. Maybe I'm more romantic? 🙂

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  35. Just walked back to the office through downtown DC. the protesters in freedom plaza had decamped to march down 14th street (must have been permitted, because they had police escort — or the cops figure it was easier that way)hodgepodge of signs. anti-war (and a life size predator drone model, which was pretty cool), anti-capitalist, anti-business. interestingly there was a "legal tent" set up. one sign just read "regulate, regulate, regulate." couple of us suits had to laugh, as that more $$$ for us. pass your laws and move on. that's my time to shine. [note avatar, twirl mustache insert evil laugh]

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  36. Lms, I'm all for citizen participation and action.  I also understand and share these kids frustration in that I am and will have to continue to support programs I will never benefit from and that will continue to choke off opportunity, especially for younger citizens. 

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  37. McWing, you don't think you'll ever benefit from SS or Medicare? I agree Medicare in particular needs to be worked on, but no more than our insurance for health care system. I don't see SS as a big problem though. I'm assuming that's what you're referring to.Besides, NoVA and I are working on Medicare. 🙂

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  38. and it needs a ton of work. of note, the commission voted today to cut Medicare payments by about $100 billion, and another $225 billion would come from changes to drug payments, higher beneficiary cost sharing and a few smaller offsets.keep in mind all this would happen regardless of what the super committee does. so if congress enacted this as proposed it would be in addition to whatever the super committee does/doesn't do.

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  39. oh, i should add that it's not just a cut, it's a cut in conjunction with repealing the doc-payment formula, which everyone agrees is the problem.

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  40. Lms, I dont think that Medicare is reformable from the topdown and so the model we have now, anything goes in essence, we not exist when I turn whatever age it gets raised to. Therefore, it will not be remotely generous as it is now. Therefore, I'm laying for a benefit I will not receive. Ditto SS, in that, if benefits still exist, it will not be at the level it is today, and may not (probably not) even be available to me if I am not indigent. Again, I'm paying for a program now that I will not enjoy (at the very least at the same level of benefits that exist now) the benefits of. That, to me, seems unarguable. Since you've been contributing to SS, the eligibility age has risen. That alone lowers the level of benefit you will receive. Therefore you will not enjoy the level of benefits many current recipients receive.

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  41. NoVA:I would be interested in a report from tomorrow's MedPAC sessions, if you are so inclined, particularly the preventable admissions session.Thanks in advance.

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