Banish the word “struggle” from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we have been waiting for. (Hopi elders)
The “vibe,” if you will, of every Occupy gathering I’ve been to has been unmistakable. There is nothing more invigorating than being in the presence of a movement which seeks nothing less than the re-imagining of the entire world order. A movement which calls a rotten system by its rightful name, where even the most sacred cows are rejected, and nothing is beyond reproach. There is a feeling of taking a fateful journey into uncharted territory, of excitement and vitality, but also of peace, clarity. Amid the hustle and bustle and frantic organizing, a calm, content, quiet focus. I bristled at first upon seeing the various meditation circles that have become a regular sight at OWS actions, not because I don’t recognize the substantial benefits of meditation, but because I thought it might alienate those not oriented to the practice, or reinforce common stereotypes. After thinking about it more, though, I realized that meditation – the practice of cultivating awareness – is the perfect visual for the Occupy movement. An expression of genuine interest in and concern for reality, a knowledge that simply remaining faithful to reality will lead to the best result, as well as a radical indifference as to whether or not this reality is easily insertable within current cultural conventions.
That expression is contrasted, however, by another, less wholesome variety. This one is characterized by unhinged indignation, a perpetual struggle complex, a runaway train of identity politics, and another equally radical indifference – fueled not by awareness, but by a craving for conflict.
One example of this indignation came from the top of a big rig at the Occupy Oakland west coast port shutdown, in the form of a spoken word piece. The poet prefaced his performance with a background of what had inspired it – the petty, ill-informed complaints he had been hearing about vandalism at a previous Occupy Oakland march. He spoke of Bhagat Singh, the Malcolm X of the Indian independence movement, venomously decrying the fact that most people in attendance had likely never heard his name. He may have had some salient points, but I tuned out soon after he got going. He seemed to be getting a little too much satisfaction from hearing his own echo penetrate the night air.
Perhaps the most telling representation of this other, less attractive expression came a bit later, at the General Assembly. Through biting cold and tired limbs, the people’s mic traveled lackadaisically through the crowd, often dying out before reaching its intended destination in the back. It wasn’t that the protesters themselves lacked inspiration – the messages they were transmitting did. The proposal put forth concerned whether or not to extend the blockade to the 3 AM shift, and make good on a previously announced threat to continue the action if there had been any instances of police repression. The facilitators listed off numerous accounts around the country where this had apparently occurred, though at that moment, in that place, no one was about to break out their laptops or smart phones to do the research necessary to verify those claims. It was similar to a previous Occupy SF action I had attended, where activists walked around seeking donations to help bail a fellow occupier out of jail, evidently feeling that furnishing their passion, rather than details of the altercation, should be enough to warrant charity.
Many in the crowd lined up to get on stage and speak their piece, but only 2 did. The people’s mic was cumbersome, and it was cold. So one of the facilitators informed the audience that the question of extending the blockade had never actually been up for debate. We were extending the blockade. Those who wanted to take part could stay, those who didn’t want to could leave. It was an understandable decision. In this setting, there was no room for nuance, for substantive exchanges, or a circumspect attention to detail, and it wasn’t clear if those things would even be valued had they been possible. As the haphazard proceedings churned on, the sense arose among many that the plot was being lost. A suspicion that the facilitators and many protesters in attendance might be more enamored by the novelty of taking part in a resistance movement, than by taking the careful, calculated, unglamorous steps necessary to actually build a better world. The lack of focus was tangible, leading one to wonder – Who’s in charge here? I know, I know. We all are. But what is in charge?
Conflict and inner strife is inevitable in any social movement, and as the scope of the grievance grows, so does the room for conflict. It should come as no surprise, then, that significant disagreements should arise within the Occupy movement, given that its grievance is, well, everything. The disagreements in this case are not limited to tactics, but the goals as well, and this reality has proven to be both the biggest strength and weakness of OWS. While the insistence on remaining steadfast to its founding ideals is understandable, the movement risks being paralyzed by them. Actions continue to take place. Posts continue to appear on occupywallst.org. But the whisper among Occupy supporters not attending regular general assembly meetings is becoming more audible – What’s the plan? Occupying the caucuses is nice, but it does nothing to answer this question.
With the arrival of the new year, the time has come for OWS to become more than a protest movement. It’s time to start creating, and exemplifying, the new world it knows is possible. It wasn’t just the blatant corruption that lit the spark of the Occupy movement, it was the inner knowledge that a more just world isn’t just an ideal, it’s a possibility. But the new world will not magically manifest itself with the toppling of a regime. It will be built by the hard work and discernment of the ones demanding it. It will not be handed down from Wall Street or Washington. They are the ones responsible for the current system and the ones who benefit from it. The new system will be conceived independently of them, and nurtured to the point where their institutions become even more obsolete than they are today. It will be a far more agile, transparent system. One where human needs take precedent over the need for endless “growth,” where the prospect of climate change is a more serious threat than the prospect of economic change, and where connection is valued more than separation. It won’t be ushered in by people exhibiting the same anger, self-absorption and shortsightedness that are the hallmarks of our current dysfunction. It will be ushered in by an increasingly educated and aware populous that understands the importance of leaving those negative attributes behind.
The path forward is just that – a path, and each day offers the opportunity of taking another step forward. Right now, however, OWS is meandering off the side of the road, indiscriminately engaging in frivolous banter with whomever might pass by. What’s required is a long-term plan, and a disciplined implementation of that plan, consisting of greater coordination and regular communication among Occupy groups across the country, as well as the solving of specific, real problems on the local level – the ones incapable of being solved by the current establishment. It will be a long, sometimes thankless process, void of the adrenaline rush that no doubt accompanies a prosecutorial rant on the steps of City Hall. But this process will be accompanied by a subtler, more refined feeling. The natural feeling of satisfaction that accompanies renewal, and the rekindling of principles that have been lost. The experience of being the change, and of taking part in a great transition – the very upgrading of life on earth. It’s hard to imagine anything more exciting than that.