"There's no there there,"Gertrude Stein once lamented about Oakland. There seems to be that quality with the Occupy movement too -- no charismatic leaders singled out to give a face to the movement nor even go-to, friends-of-the-press spokespeople.
There's of course the resonant message,"We are the 99%"(emblazoned on the mini-placard I took home from a solidarity march through Portland a couple of weeks ago). That declaration sums up the widespread disaffection with, and anger at, the rapacious excesses of the overprivileged 1% among us who own the farm and call the shots -- Wall Street banking investors and transnational corporate CEO's among others. And the next tier too. You know, the ones dropping McDonald's application forms to the Occupy protesters below from the windows of the Chicago Board of Trade? Dropping them from the selfsame windows plastered with sneering"We are the 1%"signs.
Whereas the object of its outrage is clear, there is something amorphous about the movement itself. It's diverse, formless, in a state of becoming, nascent.
"What is your programme?"exasperated journalists asked of the grassroots Irish nationalist movement in the early years of the 20th century. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, pundits and journalists speculate over the same question regarding the Occupy movement:"What are your aims? What is your plan of action? How will encampments in urban centers accomplish anything? What exactly is it you're trying to accomplish, anyway!? And after you've accomplished whatever that is, when are you going to wrap it up, pack it up and go home?"
The first and most eloquent response I've heard so far came from an Occupier, a smiling young man who was at the moment sweeping up the paths snaking among the ramshackle tents and blue tarps at Lownsdale Park in downtown Portland. My wife and I were there that cool autumn morning a few weeks ago to donate goods to the new community there -- food to the kitchen, first aid supplies to medical tent and books to the library (each had a makeshift cardboard sign identifying it as such). But we were also interested to know how a small group of citizens occupying a small urban park was going to have any effect on society at large. The young man leaned on his broom and said,"Our purpose is not just to occupy a space, but to occupy the mind."The public mind that is, a mind that would otherwise be pre-occupied with a myriad of other matters and chatter.
Still though, now that the Occupy movement is in our mind, on our radar, what are the rest of us not currently camped in downtown parks, to make of this occupation? I fear that there is a danger if the movement is not well understood. That gives opponents -- especially in the faux news business -- the opportunity to move in and fill the vacuum of understanding with their own invidious, trivializing interpretations. They've already tried to portray the Occupiers in Chicago, on Wall Street, in Lownsdale Park, in Oakland and London and elsewhere, those who actually got out there to make a durable public statement -- as cartoonish stereotypes: as hippies, vagrants, malcontents. They've tried to dismiss the cause, the demands for social justice, tried to drain the message of meaning.
Happily so far, the intent of the movement seems to be viscerally clear to a majority of Americans and (unlike the movements of the 1960's) has multi-generational support. How else could it have captured the public imagination as it has?
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But there is something else going on, something profound. There is a reconsideration of the kind of society we want to live in, a deep reimagining of community.
On our way to the General Assembly one evening, as we strolled those same tent lanes of Lownsdale Park, lanterns swinging from tent poles, music strumming here and there, drums hand-drummed everywhere, faint aromas of every variety, people hanging out philosophizing or sitting on benches just shooting the breeze, some busy cooking up dinner in the capacious kitchen tent and others writing on notepads or reading books under the electric park lights illuminating the vast overarching boughs of alder and oak, I felt both a vibrant energy and a kind of coziness. It felt like a snug encampment of explorers of a new world with the dark wilderness just beyond the circle of campfire light. I thought of Paul McCartney's Wings song,"Hope for deliverance / From the darkness that surrounds us". I can't quite quantify the experience, but it was both comfortably ordinary and thrilling. It was both modern and primal. It was a group of humans huddling around a campfire discussing the day's events and planning for what the next day might bring.
Yes, something profound is happening. It's not just about jobs. It's about justice, about human dignity -- a term enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the way. It is a peaceful version of the shot heard "round the world (fired at a place presciently named"Concord") that started in Tunisia, spread its message of hope to Egypt, went on to inspire the Indignados in Spain, came to Wall Street, rolled across the US, then rolled back out, amplified, like a rebounding wave across the world to Canada, Britain, China, Australia, continental Europe and points beyond.
So who's leading the charge? Where is the there there? Well, that's the whole point. That hard-to-get-your-hands-around-it, hard-to-label-it characteristic is fundamental to the movement, its wisdom and greatest strength. You can dig up dirt on, discredit an individual, but not a whole movement. You can cynically disparage a well-defined cause, but not a million voices crying for justice, each in their own way, each from their own perspective.
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When we got to the General Assembly at nearby Terry Schrunk Plaza, what struck me was the absence of anyone"in charge", yet the meeting progressed productively and group goals were established along the way by consensus. Yes, there was a facilitator who made sure everyone had a chance to speak, starting with those who needed to report back to the community on the progress of certain tasks they'd taken on. The facilitator was quite able and clearly she had training in how to facilitate a meeting.