Thursday evening I marched beside half a dozen people holding aloft a 15-foot-tall mockup of the preamble to the Constitution. Beneath “We The People,” scrawled in Jefferson’s iconic calligraphy, corporate labels like Exxon and Koch Industries plastered the old parchment like the paintjob on a Nascar. The message was clear: We The People were sold out to corporate greed. Indeed, one of the most popular chants that reverberated through the parade of 2-3000 people was the staccato accusation, “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!”
We marched past the White House crying “How to end the deficit? End the wars! Tax the rich!” We shook our fists and inquired “Where are the jobs?!” at the ominous barred portcullis of the Chamber of Commerce. We then marched on K Street where we reminded the nation’s brigades of lobbyists that “This is what democracy looks like!”
The protest was organized by Stop the Machine, an organization allied with Code Pink and Veterans for Peace, among others. They camped out at Freedom Plaza where visitors could peruse moving displays such as rows of combat boots with dog tags of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was planned weeks before anyone heard of Occupy Wall Street. And it was just a coincidence that it happened at the same time, and a few blocks, from where Occupy DC began growing more spontaneously from the grass roots in McPherson Square. The two quite likeminded movements joined forces for the march on the Chamber of Commerce to achieve the numbers they did.
As the afternoon wound on, as police atop growling motorcycles herded us down DC streets, as people waiting at bus stops filmed us with iPhones and passing cars honked in solidarity, it became clear to me that there were some demands. For a couple days, I accepted at face value the media’s trope that the protesters just need to settle on a list of demands. But after returning yesterday and spending time talking to people camped out at McPherson Square, it became clear to me why there isn’t a list of demands.
A Social Network of Protest
Occupy DC is only a fraction of the size of Occupy Wall Street, yet is a big tent intellectually. Individuals’ major concerns run a gamut from traditional liberal causes such as the environment, corporate influence in politics and ending the wars to more vague or sweeping ideas like building a fairer society and teaching people to be more empathetic. Some of them are passionately and overtly political while others are more countercultural or simply generally concerned about the direction of our society. But the important reason why there is no list of demands is not because of the diversity of ideas, but because of how those ideas are shared.
Their discussion process, “the people’s mic,” really drove home the point that no one is in charge. There are some coordinators, but they seem to see themselves as facilitators or moderators of discussion rather than leaders. General Assembly is held every day and proceeds on a set of rules akin to ‘Robert’s Rules of Order.’ This is a board meeting of hundreds of people. Everyone who wants to has a say. The person who has the floor will say “mic check” and then hundreds of voices will repeat “MIC CHECK.” This way, everyone can hear the discussion at hand. Agreement, neutrality and disagreement with the speaker can be expressed by rippling one’s fingers up, outward or down, respectively. This way, the speaker can gauge the crowd’s reception without being interrupted. The discussion proceeds slowly but methodically, and the bulk of it pertains to housekeeping for those staying long-term in the park. Mic check. MIC CHECK. I think we need. I THINK WE NEED. To discuss. TO DISCUSS. The issue of. THE ISSUE OF. Comfort with. COMFORT WITH. Pets. PETS. A sea of fingers twinkles toward the sky, and the speaker presses on with encouragement.
Thus, it became clear to me that the Occupy project is not simply a protest, but it is also an experimental society. It is a small community in which everyone is invested, everyone is equal, everyone can lead but no one is in charge. In a sense, this is the protest of the Facebook generation. The ideas and the process are fused into a social network of protestation. There is a crucial difference between Occupy and Facebook, though. People are coming together in the flesh to be a real, living, breathing community in each other’s presence. Facebook and sites like it are illusions of socializing. People are really alone, tapping away in front of a glowing screen. At Occupy DC, people are living and discussing together. Open dialogue is the magnet that is holding them all together, causing more people to join and more branches to open in different cities and now different countries.
Shafted by the Great Recession
The media are trying to goad Occupy Wall Street into outing themselves as a group of radicals with a megaphone. They want a list of demands—and in fact what they really want is sound bytes—so that institutional conservatives can condemn them as unwashed hippies too lazy to work while institutional liberals can tweet ‘we told you so’ from the backs of limousines. Then the media can say “Look! Conflict! Fire up the presses!”
As long as the Occupy movement sticks to its process of leaderless open dialogue, it literally cannot be co-opted, and cannot be pigeonholed. It defies definition. But there’s something kind of funny about a community in which every person is equal, all voices are heard and considered on their merits, and governance proceeds through open dialogue. The funny thing about it is: THAT IS WHAT DEMOCRACY IS SUPPOSED TO BE!
The very existence of Occupy is a slap across the smug faces of the businessmen, politicians and media folks who are trying to ignore, denounce, define, co-opt, pigeonhole, embrace or pepper spray the movement. The inherent message to the powers that be is, effectively: you have screwed up so badly that we are now completely ignoring you. We no longer consider you to be in charge of anything or to be running this country. We are creating a safe place to open dialogue on how best to proceed. This dialogue itself will become the model whereby you will be replaced. But we’re not going to bother telling you that because what you think is irrelevant. You are now obsolete. Goodbye.
The relationship between the Occupy movement and the actual ‘leaders’ of this country is like the relationship between grown children and their parents who are going through a divorce. In this analogy, the divorce is so messy that both sides are trying to take everything and can no longer speak to each other. The children have to step in to calmly, rationally and fairly mediate the split. The Occupy movement is essentially stepping in to rationally mediate the dysfunctional marriage between America’s government and business institutions.
It’s important to point out that they’re not all kids. It’s true that most of them are the ones who were tossing their graduate caps into the air on college greens across the country just as Lehman Brothers was collapsing. They see no job prospects but are shackled to 5- or 6-figure student loan debts. Indeed, one popular theme of the protests is “End Sallie Mae Slavery!” Yet, there is significant diversity among the Occupiers. There are veterans of past countercultural movements and veterans of wars. There are older people who were laid off at an age when they have no real hope of being hired again for a decent job. There are many Black folks protesting the fact that the recession wiped out half a century of economic growth in their community. There are political independents and libertarians as well as people who once considered themselves conservatives. They share a common experience of having been shafted in a real, tangible way by the Great Recession. Some of them traveled for hours or days to be there. One young man with a rich Tennessee twang spoke emotionally about how his father’s small business was possessed by a national bank on trumped up charges. They tried to sue the bank, but the government refused to prosecute. Now they are selling their house and he can’t afford to finish college.
Let Them Eat Cake
Their vision of what our society has become and what it should be is what binds the protesters together. To use another analogy, there is a sense that our society is like a birthday party for ten kids. One very greedy boy (Wall St./corporations) shows up to the party with his mother (the government). His mother proceeds to cut the cake into ten slices and then gives nine of them to her son. The other nine kids (the Occupiers as they see themselves) are left to split the one slice of cake between them. The mother pats her son on the head while he stuffs his face with cake. The other kids say, “wait, that’s not fair.” And she ignores them while her son gobbles more cake. The nine kids become agitated, and cry out “hey, you can’t do that!” She purrs to her son, “good boy, just ignore them.” The other nine indignantly shout, “stop that, now!” The boy, his voice muffled with cake, looks to his mother and whines, “I want to eat all the cake!” His mother replies, “Of course you eat all the cake.” She then slaps the last slice on a plate, hands it to the nine kids and barks, “Look, I’m letting you eat cake.” The kids look at the slice, look at each other and shake their heads, “No. We won’t fight each other over this slice of cake.” The mother then screams, “WHAT?! You are all filthy, communist socialists! You are lazy, greedy, worthless children!” The nine children then reach for the cake the greedy boy hasn’t eaten yet. His mother reaches into her purse, pulls out pepper spray and sprays all the children in the face. But, for some reason, this doesn’t make them want to fight each other for that last slice of cake. It makes them more determined to stop the greedy boy and his mother.
Gandhi’s observation that “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win,” provides an eerily accurate description of the responses thus far by the entrenched powers in our society. The media are only beginning to take the movement seriously after ignoring it for weeks. Politicians have begun calling them names and trying to label them. Eric Cantor called them a “mob.” Mitt Romney called them “dangerous.” NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused them of “trying to destroy…jobs” (seriously?). Now the (corporate-sponsored) NYPD is pepper spraying them, beating them with clubs, arresting them for resisting arrest—a brilliantly Orwellian Catch-22. Yet, their numbers are growing.
After taking part in the protests and observing the branch of their community here in DC, my message to Wall Street, K Street, the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, the corporations, the politicians and the media is: begin implementing real reforms to break the corporate/government nexus. A good place to start would be to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which erected a wall between investment and commercial banking; and to legislate against the Supreme Court’s unconstitutional misinterpretation of the Citizens United vs. FEC case which allowed unlimited secret corporate campaign donations. These two gestures would be real and would go a long way toward reining in destructive corporate greed and restoring government of the people by the people for the people in this country. But they would only be a beginning. In the end, we will need a new New Deal for a new age of economic suffering and a radical reassessment of our priorities as a society. Submit to real reforms now before our resistance to your misrule and mismanagement intensifies.
We know you hear those drums outside your towers and blast-proof walls. We know that you know that those drums are for you. “Show me what democracy looks like!”