Reflections from #OWS
Friday night, I rode up to Brooklyn, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and down Broadway to Zuccotti Park. By the time I got there, it was almost 11:30pm, but the general assembly was still going on (they start theirs at 7pm, so that means the GA had been going on for four and a half hours already). I stepped right in to watch.
Voices were hoarse and tempers were flared as the #OWS protestors debated what I eventually understood was a proposal to have all media inquiries today be directed to women or people of color because the news coverage yesterday (after Bloomberg delayed the park cleaning) showed only white men. One mic check stumbled over another as the arguing parties tried to abandon the process to speak. When the main facilitator told one guy he had to get on stack to talk, he shouted "I didn't agree to your process, I'm a primitive!" At one point all the facilitators gave up, and people were shouting at each other. Themain facilitator, who was the most conciliatory, attempted repeatedly to push the agenda along. Random people from the crowd, some of them who seemed to be newcomers who didn't know or care about the process, interjected and shouted haphazardly about all sorts of oppression and injustices from their own perspective. Fingers were twinkling up and down like crazy, with many hands held in the point of process
triangle. At one point, someone from the security committee barged in frantically, saying, "There are people who have come to the square with the intention of doing violence. We need anyone who is willing to wear a security poncho and patrol the square. Oh, and knives are involved." Somehow, through it all, a vote was eventually taken on the proposal at about 12:30am. It was approved by overwhelming majority. There was not a single block, even from the people most vocally against the proposal. As the meeting adjourned and the crowd dispersed, the "primitive" shouted through the human mic, "I love and hate you all." It slowly crystallized in my mind that I was witnessing something that while ugly to the untrained eye, is really the core of everything we want for the world. Despite the hot heads and the inflated egos that attempt to dominate the process, despite the chaos, we have actually adopted a system of self-governance that works without any leaders and without any laws. The implications of this are astounding.
The fact is, no one person actually succeeded in dominating, as much as they tried, and it was transparent enough that everyone around could voice their approval or disapproval about what was going on. Twinkle up, twinkle down, twinkle in the middle. Block. Point of information. Point of process. Stack. These are the simple new tools that have been given to us, the tools that are being used across the country right now. They seem so boring, so procedural, so limited, and to most of us who have only known procedure to be an instrument of institution, power, and authority, they seem antithetical to what we are working towards. But they are anything but those things. They have the potential to be the most liberating tools we have ever been given.
We are assembling directly under the bewildered gaze of those who currently have all the power. The thing is, their power emanates from institutions, an extensive and ever growing and changing code of laws, written by a hierarchical network of legislative bodies and appointed individuals, enforced by bureaucrats and police, funded by imaginary money, which all serves to edify ideology. People looking at this from a conventional power structure see chaos and confusion and lack of focus. But the process has enabled us in Baltimore to create a shaky but functional infrastructure on a public square in just a couple of days that consistently draws a respectable number of dedicated and inspired people. It has enabled the people in Zuccotti Park to create what even the media admits is a miniature, fully functioning city. We're doing this all via a process that you don't even have to be literate to participate in. This is only the beginning of what we can accomplish, but we're also still learning and practicing. One thing's for sure, though: the fetters tying us to traditional authority are starting to show weak links.
If we use these tools well (and remember, they are tools, not rules), we stand to eventually render all institutionalized power obsolete. The things we have to guard against are the writing of laws, adding unnecessarily to the process, the creation of binding documents, and the appointment of leaders. Always saying, "I only represent myself" is vital. Never let anyone else represent you. By doing so we avoid codifying ideology, and we avoid the creation of a platform on which people might consolidate power. With regards to this, it is also important to not bow to the media's pressure on us to come up with specific demands. I personally think we are not actually making any concrete demands to corporations or governments. Look at the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. It is a list of injustices perpetrated by corporations. But the call to action in the end is not towards governments or the corporations themselves, it's towards the people. This, to me, is extremely important because it means we are not asking the system to change, we are creating an entirely new system that removes our dependence on a system that has consistently failed us. This is why I think it's important to not align ourselves with any politicians, even as they express their support. Work with them if we must, but they should never speak for us, just as no one of us should speak for all of us. We have declared independence.
As I waited for the subway after the GA, passed out on the bench was an obese man in a dirty Cradle of Filth t-shirt, a Guy Fawkes mask strapped to his head, and a laminated tag that read "Free Empathy" dangling from a lanyard around his neck. Passersby looked with obvious disgust and condescension at him. I'm sure some protesters saw him and thought he reflected poorly on the movement. Many people waiting for the train did indeed snicker at him and speak derisively of the #OWS protests. It got me thinking that the final thing that is essential to our movement is true inclusion and empathy, as the guy's tag advocated. Empathy and respect is the air that this process breathes - without those things, all of this will die. That passed-out dude is one of the 99% just like the rest of us, he is one of the people we stand beside and defend, no matter what you think of him. I think this extends to even people you find annoying, rude, or even offensive. The reason why the GA last night succeeded despite such heated arguing (and it was arguing, not debating), is that there was an implicit trust and love between everyone participating. It was understood that the elevated emotions were due to everyone caring enormously about what they were doing. Try to tolerate even the most infuriating and unruly people, try to bear with the boring and excruciating moments. We are birthing a new world, which ain't pretty, and it ain't easy.
So I hope I've provided some sort of encouragement for people who still haven't seen the point of what we're doing. We can't be looking for quick fixes or easy drama right now. Too much is on the line. Power to the 99%.