I went down to Occupy Wall Street last night on my own.
I heard it before I saw it: drums, voices, general hubbub. First I walked the perimeter, talking pictures of the protesters standing tall with signs in hand, signs like “99% + 1% = 100%, we are all one,” “don’t let the media force down your eyes, this is more important than ever,” “this is what democracy looks like,” “we see something, so we are saying something,” “it’s the externalities, stupid,” “today we occupy, tomorrow we vote,” and “warning: don’t confuse the complexity of this movement with chaos.” I did my lap, walking between the police sentinels on the one side and this new nation on the other. Upon arriving at the corner where I began, I then wended my way into the center of the park. Just here was the OWS library, complete with five librarians and hundreds of catalogued books. “Take one, take two, keep them as long as you’d like, then return them,” said Bill, a new arrival from Pittsburgh. While I was talking with the librarians, someone came over with a steaming platter of pasta and salad. “Has the library been fed?” They hadn’t yet, and gratefully accepted the food. Just beyond the library was the recycling and sustainability station, then a sign-making center, and a medic tent, then several tents and people sleeping out under tarps.
After I chose a few books to borrow, (I chose “The Silver Bullet” by Fred Harrison and “Beyond Growth” by Herman Daly), I turned my attention to the general assembly, which was just getting underway. Perhaps you’ve already read about or witnessed for yourself how this works, but in any event, I’ll explain what I saw. “Sound check” say the facilitators. “Sound check” responds the crowd, in unison. It’s clever and effective: the human mic. This allows the presenter’s words to carry throughout the park so all can hear. It also requires the presenters to speak concisely and to the point, as every phrase they say is echoed out to the periphery before moving on to the next phrase. The facilitators then explained how consensus works. Hand signals allow the crowd to give input to the assembly. Make a C with your hands to ask a clarifying question, point your fingers up in the air to show agreement, point your fingers down to express disagreement, hands horizontal to the ground signify your uncertainty with what’s being said but a willingness to hear the speaker out. Make circles with your index finger to let the speaker know that you understand their point but think they are going on too long. Hold up just your index finger to share relevant information or facts (but not an opinion). Cross your hands over your chest if you have very serious moral or safety concerns with the proposal being discussed, but be prepared to defend your block to the group, as your block has the power to stop a proposal from moving forward. Find the person managing “stack” if you’d like to be added to the speaking list. Attend a facilitation workshop if you want to facilitate a meeting. After the ground rules were explained, the GA moved on to announcements from the working groups, and the meeting was well underway.
The whole experience was incredibly uplifting. I didn’t witness any freaks ranting into the wind. Instead, I saw people of all demographics talking in earnest with each other about this fix we’re in, and how to get out of it. I saw people abstaining from interrupting each other (sometimes with great effort). I saw people sharing their personal stories and reflecting on how their lived experiences are part of a larger narrative. If OWS is a fire, it is not red hot fireworks but a slow burning fire, with plenty more firewood on deck. No one seemed ragged or paper thin. People looked healthy, calm and fortified by their participation in the movement. I wonder how the cold weather will affect Liberty Plaza, but have no doubt OWS (wherever its physical epicenter may be) is coalescing into an enduring and robust movement.
On the subway on the way over to OWS, I overheard a few different conversations about OWS. One person says to her friends, “I understand that capitalism in its current form has its shortcomings, but the protesters have no real demands or agenda…what’s the point?” Well, in my opinion, that the movement is a chorus of concerns and conversations is its strongest asset.
If Americans start talking about the big picture with each other, beginning with our financial woes as a country, and rippling out into myriad related topics, then OWS is a smashing success. Our democracy is strongest with an informed and passionate electorate. We as Americans need to invest ourselves and feel ownership over what is happening (or not happening) in Washington and on Wall Street.
Signing off here with two Thomas Jefferson quotes:
“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government”
“Leave no authority existing not responsible to the people.”
F&ES Class of 2013