Editors note: This story was originally published in the fall, but as we approach Mayday it’s message of creating a better world for the next generation and realizing our potential seems as relevant as ever. Enjoy.
NEW YORK – “I think this is the safest place in the world to be right now.” I leaned across the railing that separated us and into the words of a journalism student from China to be sure I had heard them correctly. “This” was Zuccotti Park and “right now” was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon on the corner of Liberty Street and Broadway, as families checked in for the “world’s largest sleep-over,” organized by Parents for Occupy Wall Street (OWS).
The young woman had just wrapped up an interview with two nine-year old boys—my own son and my partner’s—and had beckoned me to come near so that she could ask why I had chosen to come with my children to OWS.
On the sidewalk, Verizon workers were on the march. An unrelated fire in a building around the block had roused a show of empire unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (until the next day when we joined the March Against Police Brutality.) NYPD helicopters hovered in the narrow aisles delineated by the skyscrapers above us. Sirens. Penetrating red light flashed off the glass windows. Smoke.
Closer at hand, television and film crews tightly clustered around arriving families. The generator of a nearby cart offering Halal food kept a constant hum beneath the din. Staring in disorientation at a laminated picture of falafel, I remembered the self-proclaimed presidential candidate from Boston who had warned us earlier not to eat from any of the vendors around the park. “This is a revolution, after all. Never doubt it,” he stressed to our boys who had pretzels raised to their lips.
It didn’t feel like the safest place…and at that moment my mother-self was seriously questioning my judgment.
But I told the journalist why I was there, and in a rush of words we exchanged a few of our deepest dreams for this world—dreams that suddenly felt possible—along with a quick hug before I turned and joined the “sleep-over” where approximately 50 families were now gathered in a cordoned-off section of the park. In the familiarity of it all—the pizza party, the face painting, the bedtime story, the wry acceptance characteristic of parents everywhere (Oops, you spilled your juice. Oops, you need a clean diaper. Oops, you need to share your Lego with your new friend), I began to relax.
Sleeping bags were laid out on the granite, shoulder to shoulder. The kids wrestled one another, ate lots of sugar, and whipped around the glow sticks they had received. A large tin of pretzels was passed from one family to the next. Teeth were brushed. A skinny tree persisted at my feet, and through her sparse leaves I could see small, reassuring patches of sky, far away.
The General Assembly began at 7:00 and went long after midnight as we, the people, reviewed a proposal to incorporate the Spokes Council model into the governing structure of OWS. Earlier in the day (could it possibly have been the same day?), my partner and I had attended a training offered by the Facilitation Working Group in which the hope had been expressed that the proposal would pass. Many felt that the Spokes Council model would enable decisions to be made more quickly and efficiently, and would provide more just representation to historically marginalized peoples and communities. (Another move, like progressive stack, to redress injustice by privileging the voices and concerns of people of color, women, and even the soft-spoken.)
The process that night was grueling in its way, and the proposal was ultimately tabled because too many feared something precious would be lost in deviating from pure consensus and the participation of all. The facilitation team was moved on several occasions to gently remind us that direct democracy can be challenging and that we are not practiced in this. We’re creating a new world. Patience. Slowly, slowly.
The last thing I heard before dropping off to sleep was our boys singing “Revolution” by the Beatles and the unique cadence of the General Assembly as it speaks the poetry of direct democracy through the human mike.
This is an evolution, not a revolution, I heard the mike murmur at one point through troubled sleep.
In the moments, hours, days that followed I came to know that to be true. In that space “liberated” by the occupation, I found the very ground of transformation. I found and continue to find… space.
Space to speak into. Space to be heard. Space for anything to arise. Pure potentiality.
I have my discomfort with process, with things being in development, with not knowing, but I am in love with this (r)evolution for the space and emergent potential it is safeguarding. I champion its resistance to the righteous cries for one, clear demand. I am relieved that for once I do not have to diminish who I am into being “for” or “against” this or that. I revel in the contradiction between being called to “occupy” and the very spaciousness of that occupation.
I agree with the luminous thinker Charles Eisenstein when he notes, “No demand is big enough: We must learn the lessons of Egypt, where a people’s movement started with the amorphous demand to end intolerable conditions, and, as it discovered its power, soon turned to demand the ousting of the president. That demand would have been too big at the outset, too impossible; yet at the end it proved to be too small. The dictator left, the protestors went home without creating any lasting structures of people power, and, while some things changed, the basic political and economic infrastructure of Egypt did not.”
As the night wore on, I continued to drift in and out of sleep. It was a Friday night in Manhattan; there was an unending stream of the drunk and the curious who came to the edge of the park and peered in. I felt an exquisite vulnerability and tenderness as we lay there cuddled around our children’s bodies. Between curses and blessings, I heard a passerby exclaim to one of the parent volunteers watching over us (OWS self-organizes to provide food, medical care, mediation services and, tonight, safety to anyone who comes to the park):
“Look at all the angels sleeping.”
We were woken at 5:00 am by the police, asking us to evacuate the area for our children’s safety. (Oops…a sweet but emotionally-disturbed young man has scaled the 60-foot sculpture looming above us and is threatening to stay there until Mayor Bloomberg steps down from office.) Many dramatic hours later involving nothing less than an army of police, a cherry picker, two humongous bouncy castle-like mattresses, more fire trucks than the boys had ever seen, and not one, but two Hostage Negotiation Teams, the man had come down and we were on a train uptown to participate in the March Against Police Brutality.
There was a slender young man on the train, standing near the doors with a bullhorn tucked into the crook of his arm. I knew him by his black leggings, dark eyes, and the way he pulled back his long hair to be Robin Hood but I was happy to keep his secret and exchanged a knowing glance to tell him so. We asked about the current location of the march, and he promptly gave us an update. The train stopped, the doors opened, and he was gone, instructing us to “Occupy Everything” as he disappeared into the crowd.
I’ve noticed lately that I’m remembering the dreams I dreamed as a girl. It’s been a bit like decorating the Christmas tree: taking down the tired box of ornaments, gently unwrapping each from its tissue, and telling the story of each one to my son as it lays twinkling in the palm of my hand. I didn’t realize I had given up hope on so much or had become so resigned to a narrow view.
But I find myself holding faith with these young people and will keep vigil with them and my own community in Santa Fe at the fires of creation—pushing back the darkness, holding steady in the heat and the pressure. All for something we cannot know yet. Maybe it will be the transformation of our systems and the very structures of our world. Maybe not. In either case, it sure looks to be the best gamble I’ve had the opportunity to make.
Occupy everything. Even pure potentiality.
-Christian Leahy- (with gratitude to Donato Jaggers and Anna Molitor)