A Movement With Legs

By Amber Dahlin

The movement of many voices, also known as Occupy Wall Street, has just as many commentators—bloggers, bankers and barbers alike. Still, few seem to know what it’s really about. Let’s begin with some recent history in an attempt to understand what gave rise to this movement and what it hopes to accomplish.

Occupy’s inspiration comes largely from the protests in Cairo beginning on January 25, 2011, and the more recent Spanish “Acampada” (camp-in). Egypt’s revolution was excited by the Tunisian uprising that started in December 2010 against the corrupted regime of former president Ben Ali, who had ruled for over two decades. On January 25, Egyptians took to Cairo’s central Tahrir Square to demonstrate against Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for almost thirty years. In Madrid, what began on Sunday, May 15 as a march in protest of Europe’s highest unemployment rate of 21% turned into a camp-in at a square in the middle of the city.

Occupy Wall Street officially began in British Columbia, Canada, with a blog posted on July 13 by Adbusters, a network of self-proclaimed “culture jammers and creatives.” The post begins, “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET: Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On September 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades, and occupy Wall Street.” And that is just what an estimated 5000 people did, amassed with help from a group called “US Day of Rage” which calls for free and fair elections, as well as the “hacktivist” network known as “Anonymous.”

These original occupiers were soon followed by groups in Chicago and San Francisco, and then Boston, Saint Louis, and Los Angeles. Since then, groups have sprung up in solidarity in hundreds of cities and towns in the US and around the world. Updates from many of these are posted on occupytogether.org. Students show their solidarity at occupycolleges.org.

While many of these groups have withstood arrests and police violence, they’ve largely remained peaceful, and have been democratically organized from day one. Each occupation holds regular “General Assembly” (GA) meetings, in which all decisions are made by consensus, giving everyone present the power to block a decision if they feel it’s discordant with the community’s values or otherwise inappropriate.

A few weeks ago, some friends and I spent a Saturday night in Kiener Plaza with Occupy Saint Louis. I was surprised at how many tents there were—one whole side of the plaza was packed with them—and from the get-go the scene manifested a sense of community. Signs posted around the plaza discouraged drugs and alcohol and a simple breakfast menu was ready for morning in the food tent.

On Sunday we got to participate in one of the twice-daily GA meetings. People presented various proposals—from marking people’s hands when they’ve gotten a plate of food to adopting a statement against the Bush-era tax cuts. Each time, healthy discussion ensued, and each time, either consensus was reached or the presenter agreed to rework or otherwise rescind her or his proposal. Find more about consensus under “Resources” at occupystl.org.

The occupiers didn’t separate between those that were actually living there and those who were just visiting or who only came during the day. In fact, a proposal for more permanent community members to wear identifying pins was diverted. Truly anyone can be part of the occupy community.

Many occupations hold teach-ins, welcoming speakers from every walk of life to share their wisdom and ideas. Occupy Boston recently heard speeches from MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky and attorney, author and activist Van Jones, among others.

A “people’s microphone” is often employed to conduct meetings or spread the messages of those who wish to share. The speaker shares thoughts in small segments, which the immediate audience then echoes, followed, if the crowd is big enough, by those beyond them, and so on. Thus, not only is a sound system unnecessary, but people are invited to really imbibe each other’s messages and help make each other’s voices heard.

Music and other arts play a big role in New York’s Zucotti park and other occupied spaces. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello recently won a special award from MTV for his performance at Occupy Wall Street.

As temperatures plummet in many occupied cities, people are wondering how long the assemblies will last. But the occupiers seem determined to overwinter, using emergency funds and accepting donations for warm clothing and blankets.

More than a protest—more than a movement, even—“Occupy” is a wake-up call. Citizens are realizing that their government is not delivering and that it represents special interests, not its people. They’re realizing that bigger issues surround and underlie the rising unemployment rate and soaring executive salaries, issues beyond political parties.

The Christian Science Monitor’s October 31 cover story explains that the Spanish Acampada was about more than just jobs. It was about “what it means to be human; what values and truths to accept; how people should be treated; how democracy should work; the role of free markets, money, the social contract, community,” writes Robert Marquand. He goes on to quote the Acampada’s informational flier: “‘We are here to claim dignity … [and] a new society that gives more priority to life than economic interest.’”

Although Occupy’s original target was corporate greed rather than simply high unemployment, the movement has a similar subtext: the 99% wants life to be valued over political and economic interests. People want dignity as participants in a democracy that seems to be getting progressively less democratic, and they want to see more dignity in and among those who are letting that happen.

Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo explains that we need this “groundswell movement” because the people in power who can make the necessary changes don’t want the change.

A New York Times Op-ed column by Ban Ki-Moon points to an important undercurrent: “In these difficult times, the biggest challenge facing governments is not a deficit of resources; it is a deficit of trust. People are losing faith in leaders and public institutions to do the right thing. … The leaders of the world’s largest economies have an historic opportunity—and an historic responsibility—to reduce the trust deficit.”

In this case, reducing that trust deficit means giving the voice that’s been handed over to corporations back to the people.

Thomas Quiggin, a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, explained that the central banking system is keeping more open-minded tabs on the movement than the corporate banks whose CEO salaries and million-dollar bailouts are just what the 99% are protesting. It is the central bank’s responsibility to maintain the economy. The middle class drives the economy, and when, in our case, much of the middle class is foreclosed on and jobless, something must be done.

Keep an eye on this movement as time goes on, if not a foot in it. As Quiggin said, “It is a movement with legs.”

Never before have we seen the kinds of protests and revolutions that have evolved around the world in the past year, largely energized by younger generations. Thanks to the organizational potential of various social media networks, the global community is more connected than ever before. Occupy signifies American’s engagement in a worldwide call for justice.

This is a guest post by Amber Dahlin, my sister. She’s a senior at Principia College majoring in Environmental Studies.

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Author: adriandahlin

Graduate Student at NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress

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