Reflections on Occupation
9/23/11 – 12:23am
I’m sitting at a table in what used to be Zucotti Park. For the past 6 days, activists of all stripes have staged an occupation of this park, changing its name to Liberty Plaza and declaring it essentially an autonomous zone. The police presence on the perimeter has been constant, resulting predictably in clashes and arrests. On the whole, however, things have gone over rather peacefully. More than anything, the people who have occupied this space spend their time working. We have divided into different working groups, each assigned with different goals that have to do with both maintaining the physical space (like medical, comfort, food, etc) and also building a sustainable and vital movement (outreach, tactical, media). There has been a palatable sense of building momentum the whole time I’ve been here and it is infectious and inspiring. Our numbers have increased, though slightly, every day and planned marches this weekend will likely draw thousands more here. There are conversations erupting all over the square with people debating everything from demands, tactics, politics to music, culture, and their lives outside of the square. Every night the square is methodically swept and cleaned and the pictures and media from the day are furiously uploaded and tweeted. It is becoming more and more difficult to tear myself away from the square every night, even if it is to the comfort of my own bed. Even a block away, as one walks through the canyons of glass and steel of the world’s financial center, the crushing weight of the magnitude of our struggle is daunting. How can a rag-tag group of young activists with anger in our hearts and a will to brave elements change centuries of entrenched power? Is this even possible?
Here in the heart of savage rationality and greed, we are creating a movement for tangible change based first and foremost on a democratic process that ensures that everyone’s voice – and especially the voices of those historically oppressed – are heard and valued. Twice a day, the people of Liberty Plaza break into a massive meeting lovingly and triumphantly referred to as the General Assembly. The meetings are facilitated (read: not led) by two to three members of the facilitation committee. Here, the people can bring up proposals, discuss concerns, and strategize on growing the occupation and the movement. It is a beautiful thing to watch. The NYPD’s refusal to allow us to use amplified sound has actually been a blessing in disguise. This creates a need for a “people’s microphone” - where as one person speaks the rest of the crowd methodically (and sometimes painstakingly) repeats every word verbatim in order to ensure the person’s voice is heard by all in attendance. Everyone is listening, everyone is repeating. The meetings are facilitated with a complete respect for a democratic process called modified consensus. Rather than take a majority vote, the Assembly is asked to consense – agree - on proposals as a collective. A series of simple hand gestures, some taken from American Sign Language, are used by the Assembly to express themselves. Fingers wiggling in the air (Sign Language for applause) is used to signify agreement, while forming a triangle with your fingers signals that the democratic process has broken down in some way. A block – making an “X” shape with your arms – means that you have serious ethical or safety concerns with a proposal currently being discussed and blocks consensus if/until the concerns are resolved. Using these hand signals, the Assembly trudges through the items on the agenda, taking two or three hours to do so. In a strange way, this process is both completely liberating and cumbersome. There are many impassioned diatribes and the process often stops for clarifications or other reasons. Even discussing small issues can easily eat up large swaths of time when two-hundred highly opinionated people are both allowed and encouraged to weigh-in. Despite the inconveniences, the adherence of the Assembly to a process that is truly inclusive and democratic is incredible and sometimes breathe-taking. Everyone leaves these meetings feeling empowered and accomplished. I do wonder how long we can keep this process up as our occupation grows. It is one of the many bridges we must cross when the time cross.
The rest of the world it seems – especially the media – awaits our demands. “What’s the point? What do you want?” While the Assembly is ever-so-slowly constructing a set of demands and ‘principles of solidarity’, it seems to me that even the idea and manifestation of this occupation is in itself a demand. I’m reminded constantly of a quote from the French Situationist movement of 60’s: “Be a realist – demand the impossible.” We are building something impossible here. With our strict adherence to democracy, nonviolence, inclusion and the gift economy we are experimenting with the embodiment of the changes we want to foster. We are creating a sacred space, tearing open a portal to another world in the very nexus of a world fed by cruel profit and exploitation. The sheer boldness of this act is not considered enough, even amongst the activists taking part in it.