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Rebecca Solnit: Occupy Your Heart

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The other evening, I took the subway to the very bottom of Broadway, reputedly the longest street in the world, for a rally of New York's transit workers.  Their contract expires in mid-January and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is reportedly calling on them for draconian givebacks the next time around.  It's a tough moment for unions in negotiations everywhere.  (Only executives never seem to be asked to give back anything of significance.)  Still, it was a vigorous rally of perhaps 500 members of Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union, other supporters, and some Occupy Wall Street types.  A string of union officials and local politicians addressed the crowd, penned in as usual by the police, before a representative of the Occupy movement, a young Verizon worker, rose to speak energetically about direct democracy and the union movement to shouts, cheers, and the shrill treble of whistles blown by the assembled transit workers who had offered early support to Occupy Wall Street. 

That a labor rally even wanted the imprimatur of the Occupy movement was evidence that our world is in the process of rapid change, but what came next was more striking.  As the last speaker put down the mic, the crowd, whistles blowing, signs bobbing, headed for Zuccotti Park, the former campground of the OWS movement, where, having filed into the now fenced in, well guarded "park"-cum-prison, they conducted another, more spontaneous rally.  And this was just one night in New York.

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Four months ago, when it came to rallies, protests, demonstrations, in any given week next to nothing was happening.  Today, in my hometown, you would have to devote your life to nothing else simply to keep up with what's going on just about every day.  And New York is hardly unique.  Something has distinctly come to life across the country, around the world.  In mid-December, Muscovites took to the streets of the Russian capital, and now in southern China, thousands of villagers have been occupying their own village in the face of police and troops to protest a land grab by local officials. 

Those villagers may or may not have heard of Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring or the European summer, but face it, something is in the air and it's spreading.  It's the zeitgeist of this moment.  If you want to avoid it, try the moon.  Chinese villagers can feel it, and so can rattled Chinese officials, who gave in to key demands of those angry villagers. So, too, has TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.  Long before the rest of us, she sensed that something was indeed coming and, in that spirit, has been the voice of hope at this website.  Now, she ends TomDispatch's 2011 by considering what may be arising on this disaster planet.  Tom

Compassion Is Our New Currency
Notes on 2011's Preoccupied Hearts and Minds
By Rebecca Solnit

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Usually at year's end, we're supposed to look back at events just passed -- and forward, in prediction mode, to the year to come. But just look around you! This moment is so extraordinary that it has hardly registered. People in thousands of communities across the United States and elsewhere are living in public, experimenting with direct democracy, calling things by their true names, and obliging the media and politicians to do the same.

The breadth of this movement is one thing, its depth another. It has rejected not just the particulars of our economic system, but the whole set of moral and emotional assumptions on which it's based. Take the pair shown in a photograph from Occupy Austin in Texas.  The amiable-looking elderly woman is holding a sign whose computer-printed words say, "Money has stolen our vote." The older man next to her with the baseball cap is holding a sign handwritten on cardboard that states, "We are our brothers' keeper."

The photo of the two of them offers just a peek into a single moment in the remarkable period we're living through and the astonishing movement that's drawn in" well, if not 99% of us, then a striking enough percentage: everyone from teen pop superstar Miley Cyrus with her Occupy-homage video to Alaska Yup'ik elder Esther Green ice-fishing and holding a sign that says "Yirqa Kuik" in big letters, with the translation -- "occupy the river" -- in little ones below.

The woman with the stolen-votes sign is referring to them. Her companion is talking about us, all of us, and our fundamental principles. His sign comes straight out of Genesis, a denial of what that competitive entrepreneur Cain said to God after foreclosing on his brother Abel's life. He was not, he claimed, his brother's keeper; we are not, he insisted, beholden to each other, but separate, isolated, each of us for ourselves.

Think of Cain as the first Social Darwinist and this Occupier in Austin as his opposite, claiming, no, our operating system should be love; we are all connected; we must take care of each other. And this movement, he's saying, is about what the Argentinian uprising that began a decade ago, on December 19, 2001, called politica afectiva, the politics of affection.

If it's a movement about love, it's also about the money they so unjustly took, and continue to take, from us -- and about the fact that, right now, money and love are at war with each other. After all, in the American heartland, people are beginning to be imprisoned for debt, while the Occupy movement is arguing for debt forgiveness, renegotiation, and debt jubilees.

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Sometimes love, or at least decency, wins.  One morning late last month, 75-year-old Josephine Tolbert, who ran a daycare center from her modest San Francisco home, returned after dropping a child off at school only to find that she and the other children were locked out because she was behind in her mortgage payments. True Compass LLC, who bought her place in a short sale while she thought she was still negotiating with Bank of America, would not allow her back into her home of almost four decades, even to get her medicines or diapers for the children.

We demonstrated at her home and at True Compass's shabby offices while they hid within, and students from Occupy San Francisco State University demonstrated outside a True Compass-owned restaurant on behalf of this African-American grandmother. Thanks to this solidarity and the media attention it garnered, Tolbert has collected her keys, moved back in, and is renegotiating the terms of her mortgage.

Hundreds of other foreclosure victims are now being defended by local branches of the Occupy movement, from West Oakland to North Minneapolis. As New York writer, filmmaker, and Occupier Astra Taylor puts it,

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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