(Why an Occupation?)
It’s a different question than why Occupy? It has been coming up along with the hand wringing over hygiene and the dangers of camping. Many people are sympathetic to the complaints of Occupy, but are squeamish about the methods and slightly woozy from the cognitive dissonance of seeing police officers sadistically abusing peaceful protestors like it was Birmingham in 1963. I keep reading well meaning, middle-of-the-road liberals stumbling over themselves as they attempt to explain away the pepper spray and riot gear. The underlying sentiment seems to be that Occupy deserves what they get because they’ve just been protesting way too long, as though the first amendment turns into a pumpkin at midnight.
So, why an Occupation? Why upset these tweed clad, NPR listeners by exacerbating their already itchy, liberal guilt? The obvious answer that must be acknowledged is that many occupiers occupy because they are part of the human crater that was created when the top-heavy bloat in our economy collapsed on the unwashed masses three years ago. Wall Street lay squealing and wriggling on top of us, insisting that it was too big to pick itself back up and that it would only crush more of us if we didn’t hoist it back up onto its narrow pedestal. Since then Wall Street has been carefully buttressing its gilded temple to Mammon with foreclosed homes and federal loans. As a result, many occupiers don’t have to be at work on Monday and their tents might actually be their best housing option.
There is a kind of Bonus Army romance to leaving the explanation at that, but to do so would deny the power of an idea whose time has come. Occupy Wall Street was conceived of as an occupation from the outset. The graphic that ran in Adbusters over the summer called participants to “bring tent.” It wasn’t a protest that evolved into an occupation, it was meant to be a permanent fixture from day one, and herein lies the power of Occupy.
Occupy must be an occupation because only as an occupation does it reflect the bizarre distortions of the system it confronts. In every way Occupy is a genuine grassroots expression of those inalienable human rights that Wall Street has co-opted and abused. Occupy is an occupation because Wall Street itself is an occupation of our consciousness, our public spaces and resources, and our democracy.
Occupy is first and foremost an occupation because human memories are strengthened through repeated exposure, like tiny threads woven into a heavy rope. This is why Wall Street pours so much of its wealth into making advertisements and repeating them over and over and over again. It is how they make sure that we recognize their brands, that we look for them when we buy, and hold any unfamiliar logo with deep suspicion.
Occupy is an occupation for the same reason that we drive by the same billboards every day and see the same commercials on television day in and day out. It is an advertisement, and like all advertisements it points out something about ourselves that we didn’t realize was wrong until we’ve been told a hundred times. Like all advertisements it invites us to make a change in our lives for the better, but the change we are called to is not a new brand of toothpaste or a phone that is the next incremental iteration of the phone we already have. Instead we are called to change our awareness, to become more than our next purchase. We are called to change the way we see the world and how we live in it. The occupation is a daily reminder that the way we are living is not only stupid, unsustainable, morally and spiritually bankrupt, but also has dramatic human consequences.
There are dramatic ecological consequences as well. In this the occupation offers a beautiful reflection of Wall Street’s tragic abuse of the commons. It is a perfect irony that Occupy has occupied this tiny square in New York, this odd little public/private space that was offered up by a city developer in exchange for the right to further block the sun with ever taller buildings. They’ve taken this space which has been designated for public use and made it into a forum for a public discussion of how we use public resources. They have also slept, cooked, read books, danced, made music and done many of the other things that humans do when they are together.
Meanwhile, just around the corner it’s oil-spills, fracking, mountain-top removal, clear-cutting, over-fishing, sweat-shops, gun-running, and every other possible whole-sale exploitation of the shared resources of the entire planet.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stated reason for evicting Occupy from Liberty Square last month put as fine a point on this contrast as I could hope for:
“I have become increasingly concerned - as had the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties - that the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protesters and to the surrounding community.”
Michael Bloomberg, as Keith Olberman and others have pointed out, makes a wonderful villain in the tale of our current struggle to reclaim democracy, but much more powerful in than one oligarch pretending at democracy is Occupy itself and its general assemblies, which are in fact a model for a working democracy. In all the feigned bafflement of reporters and pundits over what Occupy wants, few have thought to take the time to watch what Occupy does. Occupy gathers to make decisions as a group. They listen to one another and give everyone a chance to speak. They don’t leave anyone out and don’t favor anyone over anyone else. They are practicing a form of democracy and modeling it to the rest of us, and if they stop, I won’t know where to find democracy in this country anymore.
This is the reason for the occupation, and the reason it can never end. It can only grow because it is the rising tide of democracy in the United States. In the end we all must “Join or Die.” In the end we all must Occupy.