Letter to the police

Part of what moves me so much about the Occupy Wall Street protests and their offshoots is the earnestness. Part of it is the times we live in seeming to demand direct action, part of it is the commitment to non-violence and to thoughtful communication.

But probably the biggest part of it for me is semantic.

The protest movement has failed in the last 20 years, in part, because it has harnessed a rhetoric made up solely of demands and statements that are factually incorrect, or at least are arguable. NOT IN OUR NAME always rubbed me the wrong way because it wasn't true. Our government did go to war in our name. The soldiers doing the killing and dying were our family members and friends; they were absolutely fighting in our name. The 2000 election was stolen by the right and relinquished by the center in our name. What has been so painful is that our name has been used to perpetrate unspeakable wrongs.

The tenor of that language cut me off because it made the ineffectual nature of the protests that much more palpable. The more people said it was not in their name, the more was done in our names. And so at a certain point, why bother. And that manner of speaking, that kind of poster, leaves no room for wonder or debate, sorrow or hope. It's just a command - you're either in or you're out - and that is not the world I want to make.

When I look at the signs, the blogs and the interviews with Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots, I'm seeing and reading and hearing something else. "We are the 99%." All of a sudden I can decide whether or not I'm part of that percentage! Thanks for the invite! "I can't afford a lobbyist." Neither can I! I keep hearing stories of the way strangers are welcomed at protest sites, that non-violence is championed, and that people in the movement are clear about what they don't know, as much as what they believe.

It's hard to admit that maybe it's just an aesthetic shift that has brought me into this. Maybe I really am that shallow. (Though I know I've been slowly becoming more radicalized anyway). But as someone who is obsessed with the way we talk to each other, as much as what we say, I think what's happening here, how it's happening, speaks to something deeper in the grain of this activism. 

Occupy Chicago on non-violence.

Chris Hedges.


k. terumi shorb said...

rhetoric is very important, it's true. when i think of some movements in which i have specifically chosen not to participate (slutwalk, for example, is a recent one), many of the sticking points have been around the rhetoric. because words do point to what type of leaders are organizing and what type of people those leaders consider to be part of the "us." i guess since i so often feel excluded from the "us," i'm careful about when i give my energy to something that might cut me out later along the line. i guess the criticism of the occupation from centrists has been that there is no clear "goal," that the demands are vague. i disagree, i think it's pretty clear that, actually, the main message is: end government-sanctioned greed that leads to an impoverished middle-class. i think this misconception comes from the fact that so many different types of people, for many different reasons all want the same thing. it also just so happens that same thing feels so difficult for the people holding the media reigns, that they make it sound like a pipe dream.

Anonymous said...

Gary Winter says:

I'm glad you're interested in this movement, as all of us should be. It's easy to get cynical, particularly with no-nothing columnists weighing in with snarky and dismissive articles, or there being no coverage at all (oops, sorry-4 words in yesterday's NY Times).

I went down to Liberty Plaza last night, and while I didn't see any spaced out hippies dancing around topless, I DID see about 2,000, well-organized, committed and serious activists of much variety-age, sex, etc. Not bad for a movement that began about 12 days ago with about a dozen people doing yoga in the street.

From what I gleaned, there are working groups that meet at various times all day long. These groups include workshops on activism (ie-what you can do on your own time), and community outreach. This last one is important because the people down there clearly understand what you are talking about Aaron, and they don;t want to disenfranchise anyone. That is, they are making efforts to reach out to the person who owns Liberty Square to the Hallal vendor around the corner, to the bankers they are railing against. The strongest message I got from this group is that it need not be Us Vs. Them, and while that language is bound to happen, I found their awareness that they'd like to change this dynamic extremely, if you will, mature and honorable.

At 7pm there was a General Assembly (GA) meeting. A man and a woman "led" the meeting; meaning they laid down the ground rules for the meeting and kept it going in an orderly and democratic fashion. They made statements, then working groups came up one by one to make statements or announced how to become involved in a particular activity. The first woman up was a lawyer, and she updated everyone on the process for those that had been arrested, and what to do/who to call if you are arrested. Russell Simmons showed up and made a brief statement of support.

Since Occupy Wall Street was not given a permit for a loudspeaker, what they did was kind of ingenious and something I've never seen or heard of before. Each speaker would yell "Mic" and people nearest the speaker (2 dozen or so) would shout our what the speaker was saying. This made each speaker talk in segments (say, 3 words at a time), but what I found fascinating is that many of us had to repeat what he/she was saying, AND we had to pay attention (ie-not start a conversation with our neighbor). Beyond that, it made one feel like we were really participating in the event ('cause we were).

The speakers were well-organized, prepared and intelligent. A woman next to me took notes for the OWS blog. I was really blown away how well-organized these people were. The police stood on the sidewalks, but their presence was hardly a factor. I believe the majority of police are good officers, but unfortunately there are a few thugs (The police are investigating the officer who maced the innocent women on Saturday).

Needless to say I have no idea what impact OWS will have, although I'm hearing about movements in other cities. Their goal is clear: to make Wall Street and large corporations accountable for their actions, which runs the gamut from safeguarding the environment to tax equality; all the stuff We are held accountable for on a daily basis, and all the stuff right wing anarchists are fighting against.

I think the left has been an easy target in the last few years, and without accountability, look at where that has gotten us.
But enough is enough already, and with the power dynamics so out of whack in this country, something had to give.
I think, I hope, if anything, the Occupy Wall Street movement will restore some sanity and political balance in the country.