The action at Liberty Plaza, New York, began on September 17th 2011. Inspired by the indignados of Spain and the brave Egyptian souls of Tahrir Square and others in the Middle East, the Occupy movement in the U.S.A. is not yet 4 months old. In that brief period of time we have traversed incredible territory and achieved almost unbelievable success. Political conversation in the U.S. has been transformed, the majority of the U.S. electorate now say they support the changes Occupy is calling for, and cities throughout the nation are home to nightly General Assemblies and long-term encampments – at least in those cities without over-zealous mayors or police departments.
I have been involved in my local Occupy Santa Fe movement since our first day of action, outside Bank of America, on October 1st. I was struck then by the hope and inspiration that lit up the 60 or so faces of the people around me, and the almost constant sound of honking horns as passing drivers enthusiastically signaled their support. Since then we have held further rallies, organized marches, mic checks, workshops, teach-ins, and begun political campaigns. We have gathered for General Assembly three times a week, we have launched countless Working Groups, and we maintained a physical occupation almost consistently for three months.
However, the Occupy movement is not without its struggles. The energetic honeymoon period of those first few weeks, when revolution and transformation was on everyone’s lips and appeared eminently possible, even inevitable, is over, and we are now dealing with the stark reality of all that we must confront and all that we must transform.
We have attempted to bridge the gap between the highest aspirations and values of the movement and the reality of the culture in which we live. We have not always succeeded.
The harmony of the early actions and meetings has given way to division and arguments over tactics, strategy, process, and identity. General Assemblies have at times become fractious, and on one occasion even violent, and have led some of the founders of the local movement to walk away in despair at ever creating a better world. The structure and process of General Assembly and Working Groups have attracted criticism, complaint, obstruction and sabotage. Activists have turned on one another, and it sometimes seems as though we spend more energy fending off personal attacks and responding to spurious gossip than we do working for change.
Santa Fe had one of the longest-running camps in the U.S.A., which inspired community support and opprobrium in roughly equal measure. Though the camp attempted to model itself on that of Liberty Plaza, with zero tolerance of drugs, alcohol and inebriation, the reality was a series of disturbing alcohol-fueled episodes, occasional outbreaks of violence, theft, and discord. Camp was the source of much disagreement in General Assembly, with those wishing to withdraw support pointing to the dysfunction of the camp, while others focused on historical oppression of those marginalized by our society – the homeless and the victims of alcoholism and addiction – and their right to our support. In the end, just as the City of Santa Fe started to make noises about closing down the camp, the General Assembly of Santa Fe took action and withdrew funding and logistical support. An incredibly difficult and painful decision for many to take, it was ultimately supported by consensus, including some of those who had been campers.
What is happening? Why has this movement, that began with the vibrant fall colors reflecting the depth of our belief and hope, so quickly lost its luster? What has happened to the promise of Occupy?
I believe that the transformation we are trying to bring about is huge and that the problems we are facing are an inevitable result of the size and nature of the task.
Occupy is trying to bring our community together, to reconcile, to welcome all voices, and to work together toward common values. But participatory, consensus-based, grassroots democracy is not easy, and we are not practiced in it. Rather we are conditioned to give away our power to others or to scapegoat.
We live in a culture that has forced us all to turn away and suppress our natural inclinations toward compassion, relationship, and respect. It is a culture so violent and oppressive that we have grown to believe it is natural to make war on those we disagree with. It is a culture so greedy that we don’t hesitate to exploit the riches and beauty of the earth for our own comfort and pleasure. It is a culture so individualistic and selfish that we barely blink at the vast inequalities in material wealth that surround every one of us. It is a culture so riven by fear and dominated by power that true social justice for all is a dream that seems all but impossible to achieve. And, most importantly, it is a culture that has become enslaved to the impersonal systemic forces of economics that, at some level, exploit us all.
To transform such a culture requires that we transform ourselves and our political and social processes. And transformation is, at best, disorienting, and at times destructive in its process of upheaval and change. Having grown up in this culture, so far from what our hearts know is possible and continue to long for, we all carry within us internalized anger, fear and distrust. In relation to the dominant culture and the established power elites, those emotions are not misplaced. On the contrary, they are both understandable and rightly placed.
We come to Occupy carrying all of this cultural baggage with us. No wonder then that the growth of this movement is challenging and fractious. No wonder that common ground is hard to find when the dominant culture has so divided us.
But Occupy’s struggles are necessary and beneficial. The disagreements and challenges we face are the “grist for the mill,” the vehicles by which we learn, the opportunities to take another step in our growth as a movement and society.
In order to support that transformation, we must come to see these moments for what they are – opportunities to grow and learn. And we must find a place of equanimity and gratitude within ourselves in the face of each learning experience, both towards the situation itself and to the people who are challenging us. We only start to go astray when we perceive what is happening as the problem, and we start casting about for the people who are to blame, the forms and procedures that are wrong. Instead, we must all examine ourselves and our own capacities to rise out of the dominant culture of violence and oppression.
This is not to bring a Pollyanna perspective. When we disagree with someone, we must tell them; when we see the flaw in a strategy or tactic, we must say so; when a step in consensus decision-making has been missed, we must name that; and when personal agendas trample over process and consensus, we must not stand by silently in progressive, liberal apathy.
This is a call to invest in the integrity of our actions and the moral focus of the movement. Gandhi’s teaching is now so oft-repeated that it has become a cliché, but right now the necessity to “be the change we want to see in the world,” is paramount. That is true for each individual activist and for the Occupy movement as a whole. We are not there yet, I am not there yet, but this aspiration must be our guiding star, for under that light we will occupy the moral high-ground and catalyze a societal transformation that will be so much more than cosmetic change.
Occupy is about evolution and transformation, not revolution. We will not replace existing leaders with new leaders or attempt to fix what is broken in the existing power structures; instead we must bring forth a new story. The root of this new story is love — love for ourselves, love for each other, love for our planet, and a deep and profound love and longing for justice.
That love is backed by a fierce commitment to seeing this through. I know that because I feel it in my own heart and I see it in the eyes of all the beautiful, brave souls alongside whom I am so proud to work. And it is that quality of love that I believe must guide our interactions with each other as we find our way through the storms of challenge and the disorienting dilemmas of these early days of our transformation. In that love and commitment rests the hope that Occupy will become truly worthy of the 99%.
- Thomas Jaggers