Philosophy Weekend: How a Protest Survives

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.

11 Responses

  1. You claim: “Zuccotti has been
    You claim: “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.”

    I don’t know when or how often you’re at Zuccotti but this is not an accurate portrayal and such condescension serves only to dissuade folks from going there and seeing for themselves.

  2. That’s what I saw when I was
    That’s what I saw when I was there on Friday, Mickey. I’m glad to hear it’s better at
    other times. When I was there on Friday, I saw nothing like what I’d seen there before the raid.

    Anyway, the whole point of what I’m writing is that people should go, but should not assume that Zuccotti Park is the place to go to — people who go there should be prepared to walk around, ask around, search the action out.

  3. Levi–this is a really
    Levi–this is a really well-articulated piece…I had been at the first wall street one a few weeks ago and actually saw you meditating with a group in the park down there, and so didn’t want to disturb your thoughts.

    But I feel, too, there is something incredibly uplifting and hopeful here and its growing and will get more focused..

  4. Thanks, Leora — and if that
    Thanks, Leora — and if that ever happens again, please do say hello! I sure miss that Zuccotti Park meditation circle.

  5. Levi, what the police did to
    Levi, what the police did to stifle the protest of Occupy Wall Street is appalling. I’m confident that their protest will continue. However, the brutality of police in a supposedly democratic nation of free speech, and under a Democratic leadership that supposedly cares about the less privileged and the middle clases, is just astonishing. How far will this plutocracy that we’ve developed under both Republican and Democratic leaderships grow and go? What will it take for the mainstream to see through the populist rhetoric on both sides and look at the economic facts?

  6. it is true that the ows has
    it is true that the ows has had an impact. the amount of press has been incredible, and rightly so. however, the Ghandi-like militant nonconformity required to truly have a resounding impact is missing. Ghandi’s aim was to provoke and the movement fell in line. he sacrificed greatly for his cause, and so far, no such leader model has risen from the ows crowd. i’m sure it exists in spots, but not to a broad degree (although 1500+ civil disobedience arrests is impressive, were they all used effectively and were a significant portion of them damaging to the cause) mr plonk, thanks for the graphic, it helped cement some perspectives. the income gap is explained by the age difference. ten years of gainful employment can do wonders for the coffers. remember the returns of the 90’s and the 00’s. of course they both bubbled out, internet and real estate went bust. higher education is on shaky ground right now. maybe one of the biggest rip offs to come down the pike in a hundred years. i can’t believe the internet hasn’t put them out of business yet. actually, most of them are falling in online line, but they are saddled with bloated faculties. the tea party will prove to be more effective precisely because they are aligned with a political party. blame ’em all…red and blue and independents. everybody’s just trying to get elected. that’s job one in politics and it is harmful to battle long-term problems, requiring long term solutions. this stuff can be done, but it will require reasonable and uncorrupted people in washington. the people will get what the people demand. and that is the unifying thread of these movements. i repect them both for demanding. i’m not familiar with fonzi stats, but folks who want real change should support both movements. just quit pissing in the parks, please>>

    North End Of Erwin Park

    take a two by four
    as you head out the door
    gonna go march

    the north end of erwin park
    something we want to say
    people we really want to blame

    couldn’t keep his last job
    something about screwing off
    better take a winter hat

    it’ll be cold during the late night rap
    hope that guitar player is there
    the one with the funny hair

    singing ghost songs and blues
    ’bout the time he lost his shoes
    ten minute solos, finger picking style

    coat was made from some baby cow
    dude last night got put in the slammer
    took a swing at the event planner

    be really really scary to go to jail
    like something out of dante’s hell
    protest, protest whatever it is

    write it all down and make a list
    send it on up to the white house door
    demand to be heard, demand the floor

    until you quit pissing in the parks
    or living it up after dark
    sounds like the sounds of an idiot wind

    mad at themselves for their constant sins
    occupying their minds with chanting songs
    burning that candle all night long

  7. Hi Levi,
    Evidence is

    Hi Levi,
    Evidence is mounting that the crackdowns on “occupiers” are being – or, at least, have been – co-ordinated city-to-city and even city-to-federal level, as strategies and tactics have been shared among feds and mayors to disrupt what have been, by and large, and contrary to FOX reports, peaceful: her is a small sampling.…ement-agencies…cupy-protests/…wn-wall-street…ccupy-portland…cupy-protests/…upy-crackdowns

    Meanwhile, Boston Review magazine is publishing a series of articles by Stanford professors, all originating or inspired by concerns expressed by the OWS movement: this, I think, is a good sign that the movement ‘has legs’. It is the kind of helpful dialogue that is needed to give shape and focus to the protest movement –and perhaps to extend that “occupation” mentality into the campuses and faculties around the nation, with an underlining philosophical basis that has been lacking. The link is:

    At this stage, outrage is appropriate and necessary. Americans of all stripes must draw a line that warns politicians that we see, and will not accept, attempts to stifle debate or protest. If people think that this opposition to the movement is simply misguided, they should think again. The reaction from city mayors and pundits is the result of fear, that this movement will continue to grow and become a force.

    Last night Scott Pelley, on 60 Minutes, carried water for Sean Hannity when he “documented” the stolid glory of children (and their families) living in cars and trucks. What a great paean to American ‘can do’ism’.! Rather than point out the moral failure of a system – the cause of this condition was left undocumented! – he pointed to the spirit-forming beneficence of the new normal. (Wow, if poverty is this noble, why did we try so hard to avoid a depression?) “It’s only life”, indeed. (Tune in next week for the proof that big tobacco has always and only graciously tried to help us learn the spiritual benefits of cancer and lung disease.)

    The middle class in America has turned its back on progress and fairness and is doing all it can, by persuasion and force, to make the newly dispossessed underclass knuckle down and accept it’s place in the system –or, more exactly, outside the system.

    I wish I could find some solace in drum-banging and meditation circles, but I can’t and I won’t try. Sorry, I need more.


  8. Hi Levi,
    I live in Los

    Hi Levi,

    I live in Los Angeles. Some are still occupying Downtown LA tonight. The deadline to vacate was yesterday.

    I just thought I’d refer you to a local bicycle culture page that shot a video last night in DTLA. The “spiritual leader of the pack” is a huge guy named ROADBLOCK. You two seem very much alike (philosophically) to me. You may want to touch base with him by adding a comment to the “OCCUPY” posts.

    To see the video, just Google: “Midnight Ridazz Bicycle Ride.” The video is in the “OCCUPY” post found in the Recent Forum column on the left side of the home page.

  9. Zuccotti has changed
    Zuccotti has changed dramatically from where it was. But the movement is making headway in other arenas.

    Kevin Chamow

  10. For instance, it seems that
    For instance, it seems that the courts have listened to the movement to some degree. If not that, then the movement has at least created the environment for courts to press big banks (for judges who were already predisposed to do so).

    Kevin Chamow

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