Occupy Wall Street: Notes from an Ardent Observer

I got involved in Occupy Wall Street a few weeks ago when I joined 15 thousand protesters in a march down Broadway to Zuccotti Park, the home base of the movement and literal home to many participants.  Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has been alive since September 17th, when a group of about forty people installed themselves at Zuccotti (which they are calling by its former name, Liberty Plaza) to protest the gaping inequalities of wealth in our country.  One short month later, Occupy Wall Street is a household name and a national phenomenon.  The number of protesters camped out (or just hanging out) at Zuccotti Park has ballooned into the hundreds-to-thousands at any given time, and cities around the country have become host to their own occupiers.

I too have gotten sucked in.  Since that initial march I have returned to Zuccotti several times to support the movement and attempt to satisfy my curiosity about what is really happening there and where it all began.  With each successive visit, I find myself more viscerally excited by the level of organization, the energy, and the radical potential that I see and feel.  Handmade signs abound; a drum circle keeps up a constant rhythm in one corner of the park.  People talk to each other, share information and exchange ideas. And despite all the media grumbling about incoherent messaging surrounding OWS , everyone seems to be on the same page.

Of course, that isn’t such a hard thing to be when your slogan is “we are the 99%.”

The 99%?  That refers to the 99% of people in America who are in possession of staggeringly less than 99% of the country’s total wealth.  As cited in a well-researched paper by Professor William Domhoff of U.C. Santa Cruz: “As of 2007, the top 1% of households…owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19%…had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80%” (emphasis added).  Those figures are based on the sum of each individual’s overall wealth; if you look at “financial wealth,” or total net worth minus the value of one’s home, the top 1% own a whole 42.7%.

Indeed, the average American CEO earns hundreds of times more than the average worker (though 475 seems to be stretching it – don’t believe everything you see on facebook).  This level of inequality is leaps and bounds beyond other industrialized nations and even beyond a fair share of developing countries as well.  Meanwhile, giant tax loopholes allow corporations like G.E. (the notorious worst offender) to pay taxes at a far lower rate than most citizens.

So while you probably won’t find many people from the top 20% occupying Wall Street, the slogan, “We are the 99%,” certainly invokes the central idea of the movement: it is time to re-balance the outrageous disparity between the top and “the rest” in America.

In fact, I think the theme of Occupy Wall Street is pretty clearly exemplified in the three words of the namesake alone.  We all know who crashed our economy and then brought back their bonuses the next year with a little help from their [government] friends.  Who now better embodies the widening chasm between the super-rich and the poor than the Wall Street fat cats who have been churning astronomical profits at the expense of* the very 99% who had to turn around and bail them out?  (*See, for example: extending bullshit mortgages to unfit borrowers.)

It’s not everyone on Wall Street.  They are not all “bad people,” and they are not the only people who hold too much wealth and too much power.  But the ones at the top of the Wall Street pile are both: a) profiting far more than any single person is due, thereby shouldering responsibility for the unequal distribution of resources regardless of their individual philosophical or philanthropic leanings, and b) guiding their banking institutions by the very profit-first principles that allowed for the ultimately fatal downplay of risk to which the 99% (or even 85%) fell victim in the crash of 2008.

Wall Street, then, is the clearest and most apt representation of both the principles behind, and the real-live manifestation of, the parallel accumulation of money and power in far too concentrated a crowd.  Both principles and manifest reality must change.

…But how?

I, for one, don’t blame Wall Street’s new settlers for not having an answer yet.  One key criticism of the movement is a stock one that I’ve gotten particularly sick of hearing in recent years: “Oh, you think [xyz] is a problem?  What’s your better idea?  Oh, you don’t have one?  Then sit down and stop whining.”  This kind of response has its time and its place.  But should it be blithely and blindly applied to any expression of discontent that comes unaccompanied by a solution?  Absolutely not.

Here’s a news flash: most of the real problems in this world have no easy answer.  Our quandaries are so intertwined and so entrenched in the very systems and paradigms that shape our lives and our thinking, that coming up with any meaningful solution/s will take more than one or two (or forty) people and more than a few years.  Maybe, it will take centuries.

But of course, you’ve got to start somewhere.  And with a problem like wildly out-of-control income disparity, tied up with a culture that glorifies avarice and a national debt that has a bigger obesity problem than America’s population at large, we’re going to have to start with discussion.  Only by listening to the stories and perspectives of a wide variety of people can we get a handle on the breadth and nature of the problems we need to tackle.  And only then can we begin to come up with concrete ideas for change.

For some OWSers, the objectives of the movement end with policy changes that would [be intended to] hold in check the worst demons of our reigning capitalist ideals.  But I, among many others who have been inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the movement, am hoping for more – for at least the implantation, the rumbling, of paradigmatic shifts that may only be realized in generations to come.

Whatever one’s personal hopes or objectives for OWS, what is unique (and heretofore under-recognized) about the movement is that it creates space for discussion.  Occupy Wall Street is more than just a series of street protests or even just a bunch of people who have, as close to literally as semi-legally possible, moved in on Wall Street.

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To get to the heart of the movement, you need to start with the General Assembly: an open, public, structured discussion forum that takes place at 7pm every night at Zuccotti Park.  Anyone and everyone is welcome to attend and take part, sharing or listening to ideas about how to organize, improve and direct the occupation.  The G.A., like every other aspect of OWS, is a deliberately non-hierarchical gathering.  No consistent leaders dictate the discussion.  A few volunteers every night keep the procedure running smoothly, but all participants have equal substantive input. The description on the website is worth noting: “New York City General Assemblies are an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.”

Similarly participatory, volunteer-driven governance structures support operations at base camp Zuccotti.  “Working groups” coordinate the various logistics of life in the park and otherwise “build and maintain the functions of the General Assembly.”  The groups include food, outreach, education, media, and more.  De facto working group leaders arise and evolve by virtue of active participation.  Knowledge within groups, and within the movement as a whole, passes from one person to another via participation, without any constant central coterie to formally dispense instructions.

Many people show up from out of town on the weekends to give their support, sleeping in the park with other die-hards by night and hanging out by day.  Others vacated their apartments (some even moved from out of state) to become full-time residents.  Still others just pitch in for a day on trash collection or dishwashing, doing what they can when they have time.  Involvement is what you make it.

And donations of everything from food to books to money to free legal counsel have been rolling in.  Anyone anywhere can donate or even order food online to be delivered to the occupiers by various nearby businesses.  The park boasts its own mailing address, a library, an information desk, a media center, and a handmade filtration system for the dishwashing water, among other signs of high-level organization, participation and dedication.

Of course, criticism abounds.  Some people see the occupiers as a bunch of whining kids camped out with i-phones, mimicking their once-hippie parents in an attempt to have a little alternative-living fun while people feed them pizza and the media dotes.  If it looks like that to you, you’re not alone.  But you’re also not right.

I had my own moment of skepticism about the efficacy of full-blown occupation.  Faced with an anticipated eviction show-down that never came to be on the morning of Friday,10/14, I started questioning whether the potential safety and hygiene risks (can we say bed bugs anyone?) were worth the full-time, overnight occupation.  Rather than spend time and money trying to sustain life in a park, could we not just occupy by day, concentrate our energy on brainstorming solutions to our grievances, and leave out the sleeping bags and lack of showering?

It only took me a few minutes at Zuccotti to get an admittedly obvious answer on that one (and a few hours to develop a richer understanding of the importance of occupation).  The obvious answer: if we left everyday, the park’s management or some other powers-that-be would eventually get sick of the protest and block our return.  In order to indefinitely hold on to a home base that is free of charge, symbolically close to Wall Street, and maximally inclusive as only a public-use space can be, this really does need to be an occupation.  The people who sleep there are crucial, just as are the people who maintain their health and alertness by returning home to sleep at night.

As I have finally come to see, this movement is also about more than just creating a discussion forum.  Occupy Wall Street is a process.  Yes, it hinges on discourse, and the GA is at the heart.  But what OWS is doing, in the service of discourse, is constructing a parallel social and political world on the foundation of individual participation.  By providing this alternative to current (corrupted) channels of political action, OWS is literally giving voice to every individual.  It is giving voice to the otherwise mute 99%.

And while I’m sure the movement has its share of essentially superficial, self-pitying participants who are more excited about the hype and the opportunity to play victim than they are deeply committed to the cause, those are not the people shaping the occupation.

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For those who have real grievances, a real understanding of the powers at play in the money-driven oligarchy of corporate America, a real understanding of the goals of Occupy Wall Street itself, a real desire to make a statement and real hope to make change, it is not only about their own personal situations.  It is not about “roughing it,” and it is certainly not about having fun.  One of my favorite signs so far (next to “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one”) said: “I have a job.  But it’s not about me.”  I too have a job.  I don’t feel personally victimized.  But it is not about me.  It’s about the world.

The world, which is overrun by “the system.”

Abundant references to “the system” might be partly responsible for causing the messages emanating from the new Wall Street class to seem mixed, vague and over-inclusive.  After all, “the system” can refer to the political system, the corporate system, to their mutual reliance, or to any various interpretations of the power structures that have come to conspire against everyone’s ability to exercise agency over the policies, the supply chains and the economic realities that shape our lives.  In fact, the system is all those things.  And the hardest hit, those most deprived of agency by codependent political and economic structures, are the 99% who can’t buy their way out – or buy their way in to influence.

The most vastly interconnected and omnipotent of the pieces feeding into “the system” is the global economy.  Economically, every country (/geographical unit) in the world is dependent on every other country/unit in the world.  We (the people of the world) consume goods from everywhere.  We extract resources from beyond our national boundaries.

The driving forces are consumption and investment.  Wall Street (and related “streets” everywhere) fuel/s the cyclical flames of resource-consumption as companies strive for infinite profit growth in order to pay back investors and remain competitive on the stock market.  In this race for growth, they are compelled to encourage over-consumption of their offerings.

Yet infinite expansion is impossible.  We live in a finite world.  There is only so much a business can do to cut costs before all of their employees are out on the streets scraping by on $1 a day or worse (as is the very real case in very real and numerous parts of the globe).  There are only so many resources on the planet, and we’re using those resources for the construction and transportation of goods and services at a rate that alarmingly outpaces our (or the earth’s) ability to replace them.  There is only so much room in our landfills to hold the trash that keeps piling up as we learn to truly revel in planned obsolescence and disposable culture.  (Free phone upgrade every two years?  Awesome – toss out the old, on with the new.)  Consumption is king, comfort is queen.

This consumption paradigm wholly justifies and even celebrates the gluttonous accumulation of wealth.  As if all wealth is earned, received in direct proportion to one’s skills and abilities.  As if there is no logical ceiling on how much more one person’s contributions can be worth than another’s.  As if having wealth is something to be admired, to strike awe in those below who look up at the glittering diamonds and dream of what it would be like to live in absolute material comfort.

In fact, those at the top simply reap the full luxurious benefits of the system by holding more than any logical fair share of the wealth of the world.  In so doing they leave that much less for more needy benefactors to whom excess corporate profits could instead be funneled.

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These are the problems I see, and the problems many see.  Vast, interconnected, worldwide, systemically entrenched.  And so we return again to the nagging question: How can the Occupy movement begin to make a dent?

“What do you think you’re going to accomplish?” everyone wants to know.

I don’t have a conclusive answer, but the ensuing line of speculation is where things really get interesting.  What OWS is accomplishing already is a uniquely alternative political and social process.  But to make a distinct mark on the lives of the masses, the alternative OWS process will someday, presumably, have to interact with the current, predominant political and economic scene that we all occupy in everyday reality.  Whether that means making distinct political demands or backing a candidate or disrupting the top of the economic heap, it will come time to insert our system into the system.  And that could very well be where things fall apart.

Right now the strength and inspiration of the movement is the extent to which it has constituted itself as a wholly separate participatory structure that, unlike the predominant system, allows and encourages all voices to be heard.  With a public GA, open working groups, and an utter lack of bureaucracy to block anyone’s access to contributing, people are able to give suggestions in an organized forum (the GA), speak their mind without a time limit during the Soapbox (at the end of the GA), start their own group, or otherwise get involved.

The movement’s core commitment to participatory democracy, which is reinforced by the necessity of relying on volunteers to stay afloat, can be seen in a number of details as well.  Most working groups reach consensus to finalize key decisions within the group.  Bigger decisions that affect the movement as a whole, including the use of funds for purchases over $100, are taken to the GA for majority approval.  Minutes are posted online whenever possible, and live streams allow people who can’t be present to tune into the action at Zuccotti.

Even the human microphone, a system of call and response that was implemented for large meetings and announcements when the protesters were banned from using megaphones, relies on the active participation of those in the crowd.  If you are there, it is difficult to stand aside and feel like a completely passive observer; you are part of the process.

So.  What happens to all of this democratic participation and grassroots activity when we go up against the system?  How can the individual voices that are heard within the movement be transferred to the political stage of the world?  It would be hard, for example, to back a political candidate, without alienating many of those involved thus far and losing the sense of horizontal input that is the mainstay of the movement.  We can decide upon specific policy proposals to push, but how do we ensure that we don’t become just another political party or activist organization feeding into the system, that we don’t turn into yet another screaming little voice lost in the wind?

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Occupying the park, I have come to realize, is important not only because it guarantees that we hold onto the symbolic space we are using to conduct a participatory process, but because it inspires awe.  The occupation is fascinating because life-sustaining systems have been built from the ground up by ordinary civilians who have come together on a more or less ad hoc basis.  Progress has been the result of collaborative human effort.

While most people would probably say they are aware of the power of teamwork, to be confronted with a live manifestation of this power forces the onlooker to recognize that even a leaderless collection of people, armed with internet technology and dedication to a better world, can build a filtration system, publish a print newspaper, lead protests and assemblies, and – as I witnessed with great pleasure on “eviction Friday” – clean up a space overrun by a sprawling mass of unrelated people’s belongings before the police can force an evacuation premised on hygienic concerns.

The raw people power behind all the logistical systems at Zuccotti is more impressive than any glittering diamonds of wealth – because people power is something different, something most of us have never seen for ourselves or truly contemplated before.

Furthermore, occupying an alternative physical space to foster an alternative political space creates the sense that the OWS process is comprehensively apart from the oppressive systems of the world.  This isn’t to say that the occupiers aren’t relying on “the system” in numerous ways, but that the occupation allows participants to feel a sense of liberation from the usual patterns of life. When you enter the park, you are entering another world (of sorts), where almost anything is possible.

If every generation has its own unique means of mass expression, I think this movement belongs to mine.  We have finally found our voice.

And so I hope that no matter what becomes of the perhaps inevitable eventual encounter between OWS and the crony capitalist system, our movement will retain its character.  I hope it will continue to establish itself on the backbone of individual donors and volunteers, regular open assemblies, communal efforts, and evolving leadership.  I hope that it will continue to work out of alternative physical spaces, maintaining a parallel society that invites everyone to come experience the feeling of human cooperation and collaboration.  I hope that it will continue to open our eyes to the value every person brings to every table, the importance of listening to one another, and the fun of working together.  I hope that even if it seems to die, the occupation will live on in new and improved paradigms of future generations, however far down the line.

I hope that this is just a beginning.

2 Comments

Filed under Opinion Articles/Essays

2 responses to “Occupy Wall Street: Notes from an Ardent Observer

  1. As Senator Warren put it: “The game is rigged.” That’s been my problem. Re-introducing the Glass-Steagall act, changing tax policies, providing more assistance for people to re-train and go back to school, more assistance for people to start a small business or company and prosecuting people who committed fraud through financial institutions would be good places to start.

  2. That’s true, Michael. There are definitely places to start. Hopefully we’ll see some paradigm shifts to lead us to better places “to end” as well! Thanks for reading!

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