I took a gang of about twelve family members on a field trip to Occupy Wall Street this Thanksgiving weekend. First, we visited the desolate remains of the famous tent city at Zuccotti Park that was raided by New York City police a week and a half ago.
The Occupy Wall Street leadership (yes, there is leadership — they just keep away from the spotlight) has abandoned Zuccotti Park to the police. This was a smart decision, because the park itself was never meant to be more than a temporary home, and a territory battle can only be a distraction from the movement’s important messages about the economy. So, Zuccotti has been left to a raggedy bunch of drop-by protesters, tourists, homeless people, persistent old-school lefties, sign-carriers, guitar players and sad-looking solo drummers. The police have surrounded the entire plaza with a continuous metal barricade fence, and I led my family through a checkpoint into the center of the concrete plaza. It was nothing like the beautiful, crowded, energetic scene I’d witnessed only two weeks before. We caught a few weak “mic check” attempts that went nowhere, and stopped to listen in on one large sitting session, an outreach/messaging conversation group, but the session barely managed to keep itself going.
A drum-banging protest march finally emerged outside the barricades around 5:45 pm on Friday evening, and my family enjoyed joining it for a noisy stroll around Zuccotti. The six teenagers in our group participated with a healthy mix of irony and enthusiasm, and together we presented three generations of support for the movement. Then we left Zuccotti Park, because I hoped to find better action in the quiet atrium at 60 Wall Street, one of many locations where small, focused groups of protesters have been holding meetings to make decisions about the future direction of the Occupy action.
We found a much more lively scene at 60 Wall than at Zuccotti Park. At least five working groups were meeting this Friday evening. The Occupy discussion groups are fully open, and my gang of tourists was able to feel welcome as we split up to listen in on various working groups. Some forbidding new signs have been put up by the lease-holders of this building, the gargoyle institution Duetsche Bank, warning protesters not to push their luck. But the mood in the atrium appeared to be as friendly and positive on Thanksgiving weekend as it had been the previous time I’d come around, before the police crackdown.
I was glad we found the action buzzing, because I wanted my children, nephews, neices, brother, sisters, cousins and aunts to witness the hive mind of Occupy Wall Street in action. I do believe we are seeing a historic level of cooperation and innovation in every part of this protest movement (and even more so, of course, in its Middle Eastern inspiration). The Zuccotti Park raid and the other recent Occupy raids are a setback, and the resulting ugly conflicts might have plunged weaker protest movements into despair. But the movement has recovered and is clearly still confident about its future. This is a moment to see, and to feel a part of.
I am enthusiastic about the Occupy movement’s political/economic specific goals, but I would admire the movement’s spontaneous, proud, rambunctious spirit even if I didn’t agree with its politics. I respect any protest movement that manages to develop an organic sense of purpose and persist over time. This is why I’ve long admired the Tea Party movement as much as I now admire the Occupy movement, and I continue to think that both movements can buoy their messages by looking for opportunities to protest together, instead of falling into the trap of opposing each other. I’m currently working on a set of proposed resolutions regarding the USA economy that I think both Occupy and Tea Party protesters ought to be able to get behind together, and will be presenting these resolutions here next weekend.
I believe that Occupy and Tea Party protesters represent the best of both liberal and conservative thought in the United States of America today. I trust the honesty of the average protester more than I trust the honesty of the average government lobbyist, and I trust the instincts of the average protester more than I trust the instincts of the average political journalist.
I think this attitude makes sense, because the act of protest is self-justifying in a way that career lobbying or career journalism is not. Think about it: if some citizen of your society feels so strongly about an issue that this citizen goes out and buys a sharpie, rips up a cardboard box, staples it to a yardstick and walks around the local village square or shopping mall carrying that sign, don’t you at least want to stop a minute and hear what this person has to say?
This person is clearly trying to get something across. Why don’t we listen? It’s a sign of political cowardice when we only ridicule our protesters, or poke at their problems and try to shame them into silence. Invariably, history shows that most protest movements have carried important messages of enduring value. There is no reason not to think that there are kernels of hard valuable truth at the core of both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements, and we make a mistake when we don’t warmly invite any protest group of any significant size to fully state its position and be heard to every extent that it believes it ought to be heard. The protesters might actually have things to tell us that we need to hear.
Protest can be an act of healing as well as an act of communication. Great discoveries and great friendships can be made when smart, caring and opinionated people meet and gather and converse. Whenever I take part in a political rally, I’m likely to reflect upon Marshall McLuhan’s most famous line: “the medium is the message”. The way we protest proves the truth of our beliefs. The words on a sign are often not as important as the fact that the sign is being held up by a person who is yearning to express any feeling, any intuition, any belief.
To protest is an act of giving, an act of showing who we are. When we protest, we are literally standing behind our words. We are the medium, and we are the message. We prove our truth when we refuse to give up and go away.