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.
Filed under: democracy, Occupy Wall Street | Tagged: protest, public space | 42 Comments »