I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Note: I know it is dreadfully late for me to still be talking about the Occupy National Gathering, but when I say I’m going to do something, I like to do it. So the following are some of my general, not necessarily cohesive thoughts on NatGat and, for that matter, the current state of the Occupy movement. I’d also like to say that as my personal, real-world involvement with Occupy has grown in scope, it has become more and more difficult to post regularly to this blog, so I apologize to those few of you out there who may come here regularly looking for new content. This blog is a labor of love for me and I wish I could post every day, but there comes a time when simply writing about stuff becomes a bit vain if it isn’t accompanied by a real effort to actually set in motion the things you’re writing about. Of course, I plan to be writing about these real-world exploits here, but it will always be a balancing act between writing and doing which hopefully I’ll be able to master soon. Until then, please be patient with me.
One thing that’s clear after spending 5 days in close quarters with occupiers from all over the country – this movement isn’t going anywhere. It may have dropped off the mainstream radar, and it may not be growing at an exponential rate, but it is built on an extremely solid foundation. As I read recently in a forum comment from an Occupy defender responding to one of the countless “Is Occupy dead?” articles written by those all too eager for it to be so, what social movement has achieved all its goals in 11 months and not faced a few bumps and valleys along the way? By their very nature, movements which challenge prevailing sentiment will always be outnumbered in the beginning, face fierce resistance, and take years upon years to make headway, but upon their arrival, the cat’s already out of the bag. Of course we all hope the fidgety feline will find the way to its destination sooner rather than later, but we know it will, given our intimate understanding of how the current state of affairs is simply not sustainable.
So rather than fret over Occupy’s seemingly nebulous existence, think of the movement as a fungus, with each fruiting body on the surface representing only a small sliver of the massive organism underneath, each action akin to a blossoming flower emitting a fragrance capable of raising the consciousness of those who stop to breathe it in. Just like today’s corporate world didn’t come about overnight, and was the result of a sustained and disciplined implementation, the same will be true of the new world or “Beloved Community” as King called it.
What happened at NatGat, and what has been happening with Occupy for most of this year, has nothing to do with making headlines, which is why I’m always dumbfounded when I hear occupiers themselves voice concern about a lack of media coverage as if they expect the corporate media they are aligned against to be covering them fairly. It’s true that the revolution won’t be televised, and why would it be? The goal of Occupy isn’t to be accepted or showcased by mainstream media – it’s to make it irrelevant. NatGat, then, was not about protests, but the vision behind the protests. I was delighted to listen to many talks, and participate in many discussions, that dealt with all the topics I discussed in my pre-NatGat offering and more – worker co-ops, community gardens, alternative currencies, alternative economies, etc. It should be heartening for any Occupy supporter to know that today, unlike those first few frantic months, the vision is there, and the fact that there are many facets to this vision is a strength, not a weakness. So while I’m looking forward to the movement’s upcoming 1-year anniversary and the hefty protests that will likely come with it, I am, again, dumbfounded when reading the comments of sympathizers expressing their hope that the event will mark the “rebirth” of Occupy. Sure, events like September 17th and May 1st are good for the sense of connectedness and momentary unity they can provide, serving as the glue that binds the various struggles together. But like actors in a movie, they are just the surface material outsiders see. The real story is what happens between those moments and behind the scenes.
Since I never actually spent a night at one of the original encampments, for me, NatGat drew the starkest line I’ve yet experienced between the idealized world created at Occupy events and the “default” world. After being chased away from its original intended location at Independence Mall following the first night’s march, which culminated in the now ritualistic pitching of the tent and subsequent clash with police, the gathering was held in a smaller, less conspicuous park a few blocks down – the visual of a large, decidedly non-mainstream group of people figuratively flipping the bird to established convention in the most symbolically conventional place in the nation, on 4th of July weekend no less, was perhaps a bit much. But again, this wasn’t about being seen. So instead of making a fuss, attendees accepted this change of plans and spent the next 4 days networking and discussing, scheming and dreaming, dancing and singing – working out their own notions of independence all under the watchful eyes of law enforcement and the perplexed eyes of those who walked by.
Aside from the connections I made and resources I was put in touch with, it is this contrast I’ll remember most from NatGat – the contrast felt when walking back into town to grab a bite to eat and a moment of respite to catch up on emails. One minute, I was peppering questions to an occupier about his life on a self-sustaining ecovillage in Arizona. The next minute, I was being peppered with questions from a partial observer about what we were all doing there, what we hoped to achieve and so on, too stunned by the multilevel ignorance of the questions to know which level to address in a response. One thing I could have told him, though – something that crystallized for me as the week wore on – was that the gathering was simply a space where everyone could feel free to be exactly who they are. A chance, I suppose, to experience true freedom. Not the kind of freedom I would experience at the Phillies game later that week, where one’s identity is composed primarily of his choice of whether or not to spend $10 on a Philly cheesesteak, and if he does, whether to get whiz or provolone. And though I wasn’t technically held at gunpoint to compel my standing for the national anthem, I was given plenty of mean looks when I didn’t. In that environment, much like the illusion of choice represented by our 2-party political system, the range of possible choices are laid out before us, and we are expected to follow them. At NatGat, on the other hand, the range of possible choices was pretty much limited only by our imagination, so the question then was, what do we do with that freedom? What responsibility do we have to harness and direct that freedom in a way that could lead to its wider adoption all over the world?
For many, this freedom expressed itself in anger, such as those from the Philly Radical Convergence – extremely intelligent, well-spoken people who communicated their frustration about how Occupy was not radical enough for their taste, and marginalized those aligned with more militant views and tactics. Though their words clearly came from a very sincere place, flowing out of their mouths forcefully and without pause, I could not discern how in fact they felt they were being marginalized and by whom. Their anger was too overpowering for me to pick up on any of the specific points they were making, but they certainly had a voice and were empowered to use it to vent their indignation off-the-cuff in front of the 200 or so people who were there to listen. I have a voice too, which I can use to state my view that this approach – characterized by an unhinged resentment absent any interest in looking at the source of that resentment keenly and squarely in the eye in order to actually find a solution to it – will not be the approach that strips away the layers of ignorance currently vexing the world. The ones doing that won’t be the ones more comfortable wallowing in their outrage or consumed with crafting ever more refined and forceful diatribes about what they’re against – they will be the ones consumed by solutions.
An expression of freedom that I particularly liked was one of playfulness, like the playfulness exhibited in the Wells Fargo Financial Circus or the 1% Tax Dodgers vs. the 99%ers baseball game. Like anger, this type of freedom was also confrontational, but in a less, well, confrontational way. Though I appreciated all the time and hard work the performers had undoubtedly put into the production, what I enjoyed watching even more was not the performance itself, but the faces of curious passersby who stopped for a look, wide-eyed and befuddled. What were they thinking? Those who have accepted the stealthy advance of the corporate state ingraining itself into their lives without question, its subtle imposition of its values into their thoughts without a second thought of their own? What new thought might have occurred to them while listening to the familiar hymn of “God Bless America” turned on its head, juxtaposed instead with the far more appropriate refrain of “Bank of America”? How might their conception of cheerleaders be broadened now, after laying eyes on the slightly edgier “Corporate Loopholes” satirically cheering on the exploits of the 1%?
Finally, for still others, another expression of the unabashed freedom found at NatGat revealed itself in a subtle yet distinctly perceptible air of haphazardness, with all sorts of wonderful and whimsical ideas being tossed about unencumbered by foresight or practicality. It was clear that even in this gathering of dedicated activists from all over the country, those actually intent on building the better world were outnumbered by those preferring to dream about it, but this is to be expected. Occupy, whether it wants to admit it or not, does have leaders, they just don’t wear suits or care to be recognized as such. A recurring conversation I had with people, which I appreciated, had to do with the General Assembly model – how to use it effectively and not be oppressed by process, without silencing voices. I both agree and disagree with the common persuasion of many occupiers, conveyed in the intro to the visioning document produced on the gathering’s final day, that the GA’s consensus-based process is in fact the main message of Occupy. I agree, because of the absolute essentiality of hearing all voices and rendering impotent a cunning minority’s ability to hold sway over the majority. I disagree, because of my concern with fetishizing a process over reality in the same way our economic system fetishizes “growth” over prosperity. Most of the folks I talked to agreed that taking precedent over the noble intentions of the GA, which is meant to empower all voices, must always be an overarching awareness of whether or not that process is in fact serving those voices, and I’ll take it as a sign from God that at my first GA back at my local Occupy after returning home, we were subjected to a 1 hour presentation on the explicit rules and decorum of the GA. 10 months into the movement, we were still talking about how to talk to each other.
So is the GA process really Occupy’s main message? It may indeed be its core symbolic message, but I don’t think it is its strength. Coming out of NatGat, I’ve realized that the strength of Occupy, in my view, is the avenue it provides for ANYONE to get involved and make real their idealism under one banner – I certainly count myself among the many activists whose efforts wouldn’t have gained the foothold they have today if it weren’t for this movement. Unlike a year ago, there is now a name and umbrella under which to unite all the assorted struggles that were isolated pre-Occupy, assuring them they aren’t alone and encouraging them to join forces. Also unlike a year ago, these struggles can now operate without constraints, such as the constraints of your typical NGO trying to work within the confines of an inherently rigged system, or as King would say, trying to fling coins to beggars rather than restructuring the edifice which produces beggars (sorry to keep quoting King, but it turns out he was a pretty smart guy). With Occupy, nothing is sacred, and no one owns the Occupy name. If you have an idea for an action or initiative you’ve always thought about doing but weren’t sure how – actions capable of shaking the foundations of officialdom, actions that emit a fragrance of true freedom capable of raising consciousness - you can go to interoccupy.net, start a hub, request a conference call, and get the ball rolling with people who share your vision, whether or not those people are in your local Occupy, or whether or not you even have a local Occupy or care to go to a GA. The important thing is that at this moment in time, the door is now opening and we’re starting to perceive the path and possibilities before us. It’s up to us to navigate it.