A Sister Movement? An Expression of Outrage? A Moment of Inchoate Inspiration? — What is Occupy Wall Street?

Everybody’s talking about Occupy Wall Street.   There are plenty of people writing about it as well, but what seems to be visibly missing from a lot of the conversation and writing is a simple willingness to take the participants of this effort at their word.  Based on the conversations I have been able to have down at Zuccotti park, OWS is a self-identified movement in process: nothing more, nothing less.  You hear the word “process” over and over again. Like any effort it may succeed or fail under the weight of expectations, opposition, or any of the myriad of threats to efforts towards social change, both internal and external.  But, as I have written before, it is hard to argue that it is not worth the effort to change the current economic structures under which all of us live.

There are many progressive movements in the United States, all with overlapping goals and visions.  I consider myself part of the U.S. human rights movement and seek to support marginalized communities in taking leadership towards bringing an economic and social rights agenda to the United States.  The U.S. human rights movement has a long history, with ebbs and flows.  It has been steadily gaining strength, slowly but effectively, since at least the 1990’s.  As such, OWS is not my movement.  My movement has a clear vision and agenda, a set of organizations, directly impacted and severely marginalized constituencies, and years of our own process defining who we want to be.   But should that dampen my interest or potential support of OWS?  Can we really succeed without multiple allied movements echoing the need for change and each engaging different parts of our society? Of course, it gives many of us pause that none of us know where OWS is going yet.  But there is a clear commitment to democracy and democratic processes, both sorely lacking in our national government structures at this time.  Human rights cannot succeed without a true democracy, and democracy cannot truly thrive without human rights.  This for me is the strongest argument for engaging with OWS as (and if) they develop over time.

So what do we know?  We know the encampment feels very chaotic when you first arrive and it takes a while to understand and get a sense how the community is organized.  One sign states: organized chaos.  Yet you find a peaceful – if loud – atmosphere, with an extremely open democratic space where a very wide range of views are received respectfully by the crowds.  The human microphone, where the front of the crowd repeats everything the speaker says to the back of the crowd, is a humbling expression of collectivity.   But as interesting as the plethora of soap boxes and signs might be, what is most compelling about the encampment is the large number of young people who appear unbelievably excited about their own efforts.  They embody the value of empowerment in their enthusiasm.  Most are not professional movement people by a long shot, and have tremendous faith they will change the world.  They seem quite serious and ready to work.  It is not as diverse a crowd as one might hope, but this seems to be a concern of the core participants and they have people of color working groups, an outreach plan, and have recently started parallel General Assemblies in Spanish.  I also spoke with several youth of color who were determined to do outreach and get their communities to that table — they were equally enthusiastic.

At General Assemblies, which occur daily, and are open to all, they do report backs from working groups, share logistical information, questions and concerns and perhaps make a decision with the participation of several hundred people.  You get a mini-training at the beginning.  Hands up if you like what you are hearing, hands in front if it brings mixed feelings and hands down if you don’t like it.  There is a wrap it up symbol which they asked people to "use with empathy and it means we understand you, we got it, but you may be using more words than you need."  There is a "block" signal anyone can use if they have ethical or moral concerns about a proposal, and they take suggested amendments to proposals.   They experiment in these ways every day with the direct democracy to which they seem to have a deep and fervent commitment.  In short, they are building the plane as they fly it and are clearly exhilarated by it.  Their exhilaration has become a magnet for more and more youth that arrive every day.  We can only hope their principles of democracy bear fruit, and create a harvest of equality and human rights for all of us.