In the past year, we've seen uprisings burst out in the Arab World, mass protests in Greece and Spain and Israel, and a riot in London. We've watched from our safe little perch here in the United States with a few people whimsical thoughts of, "when will it happen here?"
We ask because we all know that there is something profoundly unjust and unsustainable about our systems of governance and finance. Still, though, part of us knew that it would take something huge to actually get the change we know we need - since, after all, Obama isn't the Change Man superhero we were all waiting for - we still never expected it would actually happen. Moreover, when people converged on a public square in New York City and announced that they were occupying it, so many us of were "shocked" and continue to claim that we don't know why they are there and what they want.
They are there because unfettered capitalism has failed us. They want real changes to our governance systems. Changes which will better ensure a just and sustainable life for all. So, let's talk about that. Let's talk about what they are protesting, who is protesting, what kinds of things they hope to achieve and what the movement itself is offering us.
How many of us don't have concrete ideas in our head of what the protest is about from the simple moniker "Occupy Wall Street"?
What do we associate with Wall Street? The stock market. Bankers. Financiers. Corporations. Speculators. Money manipulators. Wealth. Power. Greed. Mortgage Fraud. Derivatives. Default Swaps. Bailouts. Heartless capitalists. The 1% (I'm sure you can add to this list.)
Clearly, the protesters are not happy with what's happening in the realm of Wall Street. And it is a realm, where there is a royal class and the rest of us are it's subjects, subjected to the impacts of whatever they want to do for themselves.
Make no mistake, this is a class war. It is not however, Act I. Rather we're several acts into this drama. Income disparity has been expanding here for decades. The ability to sustain a family has been more and more hobbled for decades. It's simply that our baseline standard of living is so much higher than in other parts of the world that we were lulled into a dream state where it's normal to see surreal images and have scenes full of cognitive dissonance.
The Occupy movement is the first real sign that the 99% are waking up. The slumbering giant of the proletariat is yawning and starting to stretch it's arms. It may still be in that waking dream state, crossing from the world of the surreal into the one where the laws of physics are in place. It's still struggling to be fully coherent. To get rid of morning breath and focus it's eyes and take a shower to wash off that which the body purged through it's pores in the night. But, it can smell the coffee and the caffeinated jolt is to jump start it into action is here.
Who are the protesters? I was in NY for four days. I searched for those Guy Fawke's masks that you would think were so prevalent given how much everyone is talking about that. On the second day I saw one. I did see students or recent students laden with debts and no job prospects. A cabby who started sleeping in his cab when he could no longer afford rent. A social worker who has two degrees and was laid off two years ago, after 25 years of service and can't find another job. A nurse who hasn't been able to get anything more than part-time work for year. I've seen several union workers who have seen their salaries frozen and their benefits cut to the point that they can't afford health insurance if they want to feed their families. Is it any wonder that so many unions are standing in solidarity? You know these people. If they're not in your family, you have friends with these stories.
Here's what struck me about the demographics: there were certainly a lot of 20 year olds. But there were an equal number of 50 and 60 year olds. Those just out of college can't get careers started because there are no jobs. Those who are over 45 and have been laid off can't get back into the workforce due to the lack of jobs while the market crashes have erased their life savings. They face the dismal prospects of a very painfully poor elder life. You know these people.
Now, I'm in Boston, helping with the occupation here and I see the very same thing. In both places, the occupations are situated in the heart of the city's financial district. The lucky 30 and 40 year-olds who still have decent paying jobs exit the subway stations and pass by the disenfranchised every morning. The disenfranchised no longer look like the street-worn, far away-eyed, disheveled, addled people we're used to seeing. Now, when we face them, we are clearly facing a mirror. We all let this happen. We let it happen to our brothers and sisters. While we want to vent our anger at those greedy asshats who have ruined our country, we also have to own our collective guilt. How did 99% of us let 1% get this much control over our country, our lives, our future?
We let it happen because it's hard work to govern ourselves and systems of governance and economics are complex. It's hard to see each spot on the fabric of society as a pattern, if you don't keep a sharp eye, until the patterns is blatantly obvious. Who wants to do that work when she can be watching a good movie or riding in a fancy car or feeling like a queen eating another meal out? As long as we were comfortable, we could convince ourselves that letting someone else accumulate power was probably fine.
Only, it's not fine. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. What we have now is an absolutely corrupt system. We've allowed those with money to dictate our legislation, our banking systems and the nature of our economy. They dictate what will serve them, though, not us. It's human nature to be self-serving when you can isolate yourself from the impacts of it.
Now we have to figure out how to undo what we've allowed to be done. The first step is to wake everybody up. We have to get them see how the system is working against them. We have to connect the myriad dots that create the pattern of abuse. We have to bond, first as survivors, then we have to figure out how to thrive together.
Is it any surprise, as a nation of survivors that there may not be clear messages or concrete demands? Right now, the movement is gathering it's people in. Waking them up and saying, "Let's stand together. Let's work together." What we face is an overwhelming problem: our government is controlled by a few people with lot of money. Those people aren't nationalists. If the government turns on them, they will fight back. At best that could mean taking their resources elsewhere. At worst, it could mean turning the weapons they build and own and know how to wield on us.
Where do we even begin? The so-called experts haven't been able to answer those questions for decades. How can we expect the sleepy-eyed proletariat to come up with the answers in days? That unrealistic expectation is a tool of the elite class to deflate the movement. I don't think it will work, though, because all those people have no jobs, no homes, no future to return to. They need to see profound change if their hopeless despair is to be transformed.
It's not that the people are without ideas, though. If the first line of offense is Wall Street, it is clear that the protesters want to see people prosecuted for the demise of our economy. They want regulations with real teeth. No more banks which are too big to fail. An equitable tax system where the wealthy pay their fair share. One nearly unanimous sentiment: end corporate personhood!
There is a common desire to see money removed from our electoral process. Public campaign financing. Restricted air time for political ads. Some will say there should be no ads allowed for anyone except the candidates campaign organization. No more revolving door between private industry, government jobs and lobbying organizations.
People know that our so-called representatives no longer represent us. We are not, currently living in a democracy. You may be able to vote, but who you can vote for is controlled by who can get access to enough money to run a competitive campaign. What those people will do in office is then dictated by who gave them that money. Our vote is a sham. What can we do to create a real democracy.
This is where a less unified response will be seen. The direct relationship between the mortgage fraud and credit default swap debacle and those responsible is easy for just about anyone to see. Envisioning how an entire system works and where it's pitfalls might be and what to replace it with is less accessible. In Boston, that has led to a fundamental debate about whether the movement is about reforming our current system of governance or building one anew from scratch.
People can see that unfettered capitalism is a failure. Some will see that capitalism itself, built on the premise of competition against one another, inherently means there will be losers and that this is not a humane or sustainable system. Many are still inculcated with the idea that capitalism is fine, we just have to refine it.
Regardless of what people think when considering this in the abstract, they are experiencing something different if they actively join the Occupy movement. The movement is inspired by the Egyptian Revolution and the Spanish Campanadas. Those movements used a system of collective thinking, direct democracy and consensus decision-making to generate their power.
The ethos of the movement is that people come together to collectively build solutions to needs. Any person in the collective can state a need she sees. It is a leaderless model, where no person is valued any higher than any other. Any person can create a working group to offer a proposal to meet that need. Every member of the collective sits in assembly together to hear the proposal and help make it better. Every concern or objection expressed by any individual is then owned by the entire collective and the collective is tasked with addressing it.
This system precludes the need for ideologies or political parties. In both occupations, I've seen early attempts of people to coalesce around a political ideology only to that quickly dissipate since the Assemblies are about decision-making for tangible things. You have to be addressing a need, not just formulating detached ideas. I left Liberty Square in New York without knowing the political affiliation of a single person. I don't know the affiliation of a single person at Occupy Boston, either.
What we've seen in the camps is that, via the General Assembly, when they make decisions using the consensus process, they build a village which treats all as equals and provides for all equally. They aren't building capitalists villages.
Whether the protests lead to immediate actions or the movement manages to effect profound change in our systems, there is a gift it is offering to us all. Anyone who spends some time and takes any kind of active roll in an occupation will get the opportunity to work through the personal transition from our embedded ways of working together to a new way. It's a struggle for some. Direct democracy and consensus building can be slow and messy and tedious. You can feel so frustrated that nothing can ever really get done. As with any creative process, though, if you stick with it, you get to experience that magical moment when, for no reason that anybody can see or explain, the chaos congeals into a piece of communal art. Instantly, everyone present feels a jolt of energy and they are bonded with the power of it. Once they've felt it, they want more.
I can't implore people enough to try it out. Join a working group at an occupation. You don't have to live there. (I only down every 3 days or so) You simply have to work on something long enough to experience what happens. Watch your group struggle to formulate a proposal. Stand with them as the General Assembly gives it consideration and offers amendments and decides whether to consent to it. Even if you're sent back to the drawing board, you can see how any solutions which survive that process must be so much more deeply considerate of how they will impact everyone than any system of pitting two ideas against one another and voting for the least worst.
If we can get a million people in this country to own this method of public discourse and solving problems together, we've done a huge service to us all.
I firmly believe we'll do a lot more than that, though.
My previous diaries on OccupyBoston & OccupyWallSt:
OccupyBoston: A Hard Day's Night
OccupyBoston: Triumph and Tedium
A space of our own: A Women's Perspective on OccupyBoston clicks
#OccupyBoston: the day after
A Proposal to the Greenway Conservancy re: #OccupyBoston
Holding the Line at #OccupyBoston
#occupywallstreet: a primer on consensus and the General Assembly
#OccupyBoston: learning together
from an #occupier to Ed Schultz: Yes, we can change gov't w/UPDATE
from #OccupyWallStreet to #OccupyBoston : lessons
#OccupyTheRecList: a discussion (w/clarification update)
Witnessing #occupywallstreet: the power .... of the people ... 's mic
Witnessing #occupywallstreet: my 2nd day
Witnessing #occupywallstreet #6: my first day
Witnessing #OccupyWallStreet #5
Witnessing #OccupyWallStreet #4: Send blankets, Updated #2
Witnessing #OccupyWallStreet #3: Cheer Them On!