I have been watching and listening to all kinds of views and takes on Occupy Wall Street. Some say it’s backed by the Democratic Party. Some say it’s the emergence of a third party. Some say the protesters have no goals, no demands, no stated call. Some say it’s too broad, taking on too much. Some say it is the Left’s version of the Tea Party. Some say its Communist, some say it’s class warfare. Some say it will burn out and add up to nothing. Some say it’s just a bunch of crazy hippies who may get violent.
I have been spending time down at Zucotti Park and I am here to offer a much more terrifying view. What is happening cannot be defined. It is happening. It is a happening. It is a response to injustice and inequity and poverty and Wall Street corruption and soaring college debt and unemployment and homelessness, institutionalized racism and violence against women, the murdering of the earth, fracking and the keystone pipeline and the wars that the U.S. has waged on other countries that have destroyed them and bankrupted us here.
It is a cry against what appears to be scarcity and what Naomi Klein calls a distribution problem and, I would add, a priority problem. It is a spontaneous uprising that has been building for years in our collective unconscious. It is a gorgeous, mischievous moment that has arrived and is spreading. It is a speaking out, coming out, dancing out. It is an experiment and a disruption.
We all know things are terribly wrong in this country. From the death of our rivers, to the bankruptcy of our schools to our failed health care system, something at the center does not hold.
A diverse group of teachers, thinkers, students, techies, workers, nurses, have stopped their daily lives. They have come to gather and reflect and march and lay their bodies down. They have come from all over the country and the world. Some have flown in just to be here. I met students last night from a college in Kentucky who had just arrived committed to sleeping out for two nights in solidarity.
Occupy Wall Street is a work of art, exploding onto a canvas in search of form, in search of an image, a vision.
In a culture obsessed with product, the process of creation is almost unbearable. Nothing is more threatening than the moment, the living breathing ambiguity of now. We have been trained to name things, own things, brand things and in doing so control and consume them. Well, the genius of Occupy Wall Street is that so far it is not brandable and that’s what makes its potential so daunting, so far reaching, so inclusive, and so dangerous. It cannot be defined and so it cannot be sold, as a sound bite or a political party or even a thing. It can’t be summed up and dismissed.
What is also most unusual about Occupy Wall Street is that the evolving self-governing practices at the twice-daily General Assembly and the organic way the park is being organized, are literally modeling a vision of the desired new world. A rotating group of facilitators, a constant check to make sure all voices are heard, timekeepers, free medicine and medical help, composting, learning groups, a free library, learning circles, workshops on human rights, arts and culture, history, extraordinary speakers at open forums.
I had the fortune to spend the night with a group of about 30 occupiers — the talk could have gone on through the early morning. The depth of the conversation, the intensity of the seeking, the complexity of ideas were startling. But, what moved me even more was the respect, the way people listened to each other and honored and appreciated each other.
I would like to encourage another take on Occupy Wall Street. I would like to ask that perhaps we stop trying to define it or own it or discount it or belittle it but instead to celebrate it. It should make New York proud. It should make this country proud.
We say all the time how we believe in democracy, that we want the people to speak and be heard. Well, the people are speaking. The people are experimenting. The people are crying out with the deepest hunger to build a better world. Maybe instead of labeling it, we could join it. There is so much to be done.
Because the city has forbidden the use of microphones and sound systems, the group is using a human microphone. This system of communication is compelling and metaphoric. The group is forced to repeat the words of the speaker so the speaker is forced to talk slowly, with less words at once. The audience is asked to listen in a whole new way and to actually help transmit the message to others. Accuracy and transparency are the crucial elements. To make sure the human microphone is working properly the speaker calls out Mike Check and the crowd repeats Mike Check and by doing this it becomes clear if the voice of the speaker is being carried through the entire crowd. I think our media needs a general Mike Check. So last night I committed to creating a column that would carry the stories of the occupiers at the heart of the park.
There are certain hand signals that are used in the group to signify response. My favorite is the signal for agreement, or something you like a lot .
People lift their hands and wiggle their fingers. This has come to be called Upsparkles.
I have seen the people at Occupy Wall Street be demonized in the press and belittled and misrepresented and ridiculed. I want you to get a taste of the diversity and commitment, too. The magnificent Indian feminist who outlined the history of corporations and colonialism in three precise sentences or the buff white man who I assumed was a long-time activist the way he spoke for the need for distribution of wealth and freedom and only later did he confess to me privately that he worked on Wall Street, and although he felt guilty, he was working to change it within. Or the Latino man who said it was the first time he ever experienced really looking at anyone in the eyes and them looking back at him and he had not paid attention to his next door neighbors brother who he had written off as a thug and he ended up going to Iraq and getting killed there and now he knew there was so much more to that boy if he had only been looking. Or the older Jewish woman who told me she was there when they shut down NYU during Kent State and she had waited all these years for this to happen and it was her legacy. There was talk of poverty and war and but the most repeated theme or desire was connection, how we are all connected, to dissolve the illusions that divide us.
So here is the first offering of Ambiguous Upsparkles from the Heart of the Park. Here are the words of the brave creative resistor occupiers in the act of art or the art of act:
Every day of the first week of the encampment at Liberty Plaza was filled with the excitement that this was really happening; every day in the space was lived with the feeling that it could be our last. The Occupy Wall Street community survived many tests that first week — torrential downpours, dwindling numbers, people dropping out due to illness and fatigue, and of course, constant police violence and brutality. As#occupywallstreet tweeted: Building community at #OccupyWallStreet is hard, esp. when facing constant eviction threats. Now we know how so many Americans feel.
On the one-week anniversary of Liberty Plaza I watched the heart of our community galvanize before me. After the police attacked and pepper-sprayed protesters at Union Square and followed us down to our home in the park, we all prepared for a showdown. Paddy-wagons lined the streets. Masses of police officers lined the perimeter of the park, hands poised on guns, orange nets, and reams of zip-ties, while hundreds more assembled at the ready on the adjacent blocks. We gathered for a General Assembly (GA), as we do every evening, in a unified, determined group under an intense cloud of imminent danger, and asserted that we were not afraid. We developed contingency plans for when the police swept the square. People lined the park with small candles, creating a buffer-zone between the police and our central organ, the GA. Drums and brass instruments played. Messages on the projector screen read “Love is the New Fear.” “Feeling good.” “We shall not be moved.” “In it for the long haul.”
Older members of CODEPINK and the local activist community checked in or came by to see what was happening — asking, but not telling, what we were going to do. “We’re staying,” I told them. Some lingered on the outskirts like guardian angels, patiently, silently watching. “We’ve got your back.” The Occupy Wall Street bike bloc slowly circled the square in solidarity. “We are watching. We are with you.” I attached a hot pink “Make Solidarity Not War” sign to my back — added armor to go with the “Make Bikes Not War” signs adorning my bike — and joined them to burn off nervous energy. Putting on a brave face, I told the bloc how a cashier at a nearby cafe refused to let me pay for my sandwich earlier that day when she found out I was part of the demonstration. Other cyclists chimed in with similar stories. One guy struck up a conversation about what we were doing while in line for the bathroom at McDonald’s and when he came out, the stranger he had been speaking with gave him a burger and fries. As the night progressed, something incredible happened. The police started to pack up and leave. The bike bloc continued to circle until we were sure our home was safe, and then did a final victory lap, bells ringing, lights flashing, flags waving. The community had survived and we had won.
My name is Daniel and I have a story from the heart. Today I was riding the F train home to Brooklyn and a man came through, asking for spare change and any help. He said he was a veteran who would seek shelter at the Montrosse VA.
I’ve been coming to Occupy Wall Street every day since Wednesday when we had the huge march in solidarity with the unions. I’m pretty poor right now and basically waiting on a student loan check to be able to pay my bills and expenses. When I’m in Zucotti I usually eat some of the amazing food that’s been donated by people from all over the world! So I thought I should tell this man about what was available. But I hesitated. I didn’t want to encourage anyone to come just to take advantage of the resources in Zucotti that are feeding the protesters, many of whom have been working tirelessly, or have come from as far as Colorado (and everywhere!)
I don’t know where that moment of doubt came from, but the moment of clarity that shattered it was invigorating. “You should come to Zucotti Park!” I said.
I spoke to him about it for a minute. He’d read about Occupy Wall Street in the daily papers, but didn’t know about how things really went down there.
Growing up in New York City, on some level we train ourselves to be desensitized to homelessness, to separate ourselves from it. But the division is false. I realized we were both 99 percenters.
“Wow, thanks for the info!” he said. I have a feeling he’ll get there and be as inspired as I’ve been at what’s happening at the park. Maybe he’ll pick up a sign or people with a similar cause to get involved in. Whatever attracts people, the intellectual environment, their anger at the system, the friendly festival atmosphere, or even the free food, I think people will stay because what’s happening here is meaningful and real. And if America can’t feed its hungry, at least we can!
Some people say we lack a coherent message, but I think Zucotti park is about inclusiveness, seriousness, and the right to come together for positive change. I guess that’s just coherent enough for me!
After returning from Israel on a project a few weeks ago, I checked my Facebook feed upon landing at Newark International. With embarrassment I will admit that that is where the majority of my news comes from these days, I believe that the friends I trust will post stories and news that I should take note of.
I had a friend visiting from out of town and, after we deposited our luggage, I suggested that we take a run across the Brooklyn Bridge and down to Zuccotti Park to see for ourselves what exactly was taking place. Upon arriving I encountered a group of kids holding signs, and a handful of people occupying the park, and I quickly dismissed it as temporary. However, the sight of this group stayed with me. I found myself thinking about them for days and wondering why they were there. I found myself wondering if they knew why there were there. Most of all I found myself wondering what I would be standing for if I returned.
I didn’t return for two weeks. I have a busy and glorious full life. I am graced with a bounty of creative projects, work opportunities, and friendships that keep me feeling busy and full. I don’t have space or time for a cause. I don’t have energy to participate in a movement. How would my voice help?
A few days later I mentioned the movement to my best friend David and his response was, “Whatever. It won’t last” and, despite my disappointment about his response, on some level my own was confirmed, but then, a few days later, he texted me: “I’m sorry I was pessimistic about what is happening here. It’s something.”
I still didn’t return. I’m busy. How can my voice count?
Last Thursday, as I finished class, I received another text from David, “I’m here with your Dad at the park. Come.”
When I arrived I was given a tour of the plaza by David. He pointed out the Information Booth, the “People’s Library”, the Media Center, the kitchen, the “Sacred Tree”, the sign making station, and on, and on. Then he grabbed my hand whisked me away to an impromptu dance party at Rector Street where a bike with amplification blasted Le Tigre’s song “New Kicks” as a beautiful group of people gyrated and grooved to the chorus of people chanting, “this is what democracy looks like” and sound bytes of Amy Goodman saying, “It isn’t enough to talk about peace, one must believe in it. It isn’t enough to believe in it, one must work at it. And we here today are working at it.”
Garbage trucks stopped and lined up on the streets, honking their horns and pumping their fists in the air. Cab drivers got out and shouted “Occupy Wall Street.” Random passersby moved through the crowd of dancers and allowed themselves to be turned and spun by the dancers, shrugging to their friends saying “Why, not?” and “Come on. This is fun.”
I am aware of the myths that I have unconsciously swallowed during my lifetime: that money is the most important thing to strive for and accumulate; that we are supposed to participate in the institution of marriage and be monogamous and procreate; that we are supposed to own real estate and go to Bed Bath & Beyond, and Ikea to purchase things to make a home so that we can invite friends into our space to show off what we have bought; and that we are supposed to dress in the latest fashion and be able to quote lines from popular television.
Is this what makes a life?
Despite my participation and acceptance of these myths this is not my American Dream. This is not my Human Dream. I want a life that is based on my ability to authentically connect with other human beings and to offer goodness and health to the earth. I want to be a part of a world where people see one another, attune to one another, make space for ambiguity, and wait in silence for someone to find his or her words to articulate their individual and unique experience of life.
I saw a lot of chaos at Zuccotti Park. I saw a lot of tarps and vagrants, and at many moments I felt like I was wondering around a sketchy Phish show lot, but beyond that I saw people connecting. People taking care of each other. People loving each other. People listening to each other and people talking to each other.
I didn’t sleep that night. I lay awake wondering what a new world would look like. I had a restless night wondering what kind of world the other people occupying Zucotti Park wanted to create and what it would mean if my voice could be heard and I had the agency and power to shape a new world that I feel proud to be a part of.
I am poor. I learned this a few years ago when I left my block in Jersey City for college to pursue what my immigrant mother is still convinced (but less so nowadays, after having been unceremoniously fired from her job of 11 years) is the “American Dream”. There I also learned what it takes not to be poor and even if I were ever given the opportunity (there are quotas to fill everywhere) I would not take it. I will always be poor because I will never enrich myself at the expense of my people. Exploitation is the only way capital can be accumulated. There is something dehumanizing about this condition so that your soul screams an everlasting silent scream that only you can hear and can’t do anything about.
So I came out to face this contradiction: the dehumanization of poverty and the exploitation of capitalism. A block away from the park where the second General Assembly was being held, I heard the words “I love you.” The words were as swift as the man who said them, for when I looked back he was already five paces away. But they were as firm as those paces — heavy with determination, purpose, depth. His words permeated the air in Washington Square, and the air on the march, and the air in Zucotti Park. Love was EVERYWHERE!
Note: This is the first in a series from Eve Ensler that is posted on Huffington Post.