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Occupy Inspires me to Vote, Voting Inspires me to Occupy
My face wind-burnt, far too short on coffee, running low on cigarettes smoked and clipped for a little workingman’s economizing of tobacco, my ears distantly ringing from the crowd of four hundred or more that had paused during our march to chant back at some very well off business-types mocking us, literally pointing and laughing, perched on a finely decorated balcony while sipping champagne and fine wine from thin glasses, I watched a variety of angry abused recently dormant demographics sprawling around me in the general assembly atmosphere that would soon go beaming out of Zuccotti Park, newly renamed by The People as Liberty Plaza.
After hours of walking, meeting, waiting, marching, dispersing, sifting for web-bound, street-verified communications, the democratic celebration that is Occupy took it’s first foothold. I sat next to the crowded flower bed in Zuccotti Park that September 17, almost one year ago now, surrounded by a mind blowing variety of protesters. Thirty five feet to my right a small speaker perched on a wobbly black pole (in those early hours of the physical occupation the cops hadn’t yet hit the highpoints of their violent clampdown) amplified dozens of voices, one at a time, one voice at a time, one immigrant or New York or Midwestern accent at a time, one raging identification of a false and predatory system at a time. The sickness of a corporatist path had now even reached our nest in the heart of empire and I watched as our democracy twitched into life.
I heard old white radicals and young black professionals complain about the true size of the bailout. Flag flying veterans joined young democratic socialists to march against police brutality against people of color. There were union workers criticizing an economic system addicted to eco-destruction and financial alchemy. I saw environmental activists railing against some of the world’s biggest investment firms. Beyond the one-dimensional portrait painted for us of what corporate media hopes we’ll imagine are “single-issue” activists (and thus, implicitly through the corporate narrative, small-minded and perhaps even selfish) the “tree-huggers” knew that behind the wailing chainsaws of every hungry logging run was the same greedy hand of finance now also attempting to break down the family farmers, the unionized pilots, the doormen, the janitors, the construction workers, the teachers, the postal workers, the people whose daily activities amount to the pulse of our society.
Never the ideal city that some saw in it, neither perfect nor geographically defined, Occupy is, was and forever will be a roving tribe in progress.
Even then, huge efforts were made to make sure Occupy itself wasn’t ignoring power-minorities generally outside the scope of more powerful movements which were themselves accepted even if beholden to imperfect histories and grantees who could yank a leash on them at any time. General assemblies, working groups, subcommittees to make sure minority voices were heard, action groups, affinity groups, hell even medics and a kitchen were organized not to build up a place–but to build up a new people.
And on that September afternoon, relighting the pungent remains of a clipped cigarette while sitting on that ledge by the flowerbed in the heart of the park, it wasn’t surprise I felt.
Spend a few years with any small, particular trench of the big progressive struggle and you soon find how much of the oppressive apparatus of the 1% is inter-connected and inter-dependent.
It was a sense of relief, even “arrival” that I felt. We had finally “put it together.”
The only surprise I could register on any of our faces and even today when I review the transcripts of my interviews from those first few hours was that there were in fact so many of us, from so many different walks of life, who were aware of just how inter-connected our struggles were.
It was that sense, that inexorable inter-connectivity, that beckoned even mainstream labor to come out in the early morning nearly one month later, on October 14, in resolute solidarity to prevent the first major police attempt at evicting Occupy. Occupy fought off that eviction and another trust bond was built across formerly huge gaps in the progressive struggle. Rarely are we shown these important images of blue-collar workers, student activists, aware professionals and devoted lifelong justice activists standing by each other–a power strong enough to keep even the militarized NYPD of billionaire Michael Bloomerg at bay.
You could get a sense of these growing bridges (connections in our solidarity necessary to overcoming the power of the 1%’s solidarity) even a week beforehand, when at the end of a grueling day activists and union-workers joined in a large show of solidarity. As I reported at the time,
There was a strange, almost historic moment on Wednesday evening as the last marchers from Foley Square crowded into the thousands now gathered around Zuccotti Plaza, renamed Liberty Plaza by its occupiers. The anti-war, anti-corporate counter-culture movement stood strong surrounded by hundreds of families, burly construction workers in hardhats, public service employees, local peace activists and dozens of smaller unions. Even the corporate media showed up to collect sound bites.
Among the crowd in the park were union construction workers like Phil, in his early 30′s, who actually worked earlier in the day on the current construction project where the World Trade Center site had once stood. [D]ecades earlier construction workers numbering in the hundreds, during the Hard Had Riot, came down from the original World Trade Center site to violently attack anti-war protesters, a brutal display of the [type of] factionalism that would long prevent the building of a broad-left movement in America.
Now, Phil and I smoked cigarettes together at the end of the rally as he told me about how much more he pays in taxes than the bankers in those buildings. We shared cigarettes with a group of pierced, tattooed occupiers who were eating hallal lamb and rice while an extended family, here with the transit workers, rifled through different protest signs they wanted to take home.
“My mortgage, his unemployment, his debt. Forget retiring. We’re all in the same sh-t now,” said Phil. “So we better get used to it.”
I’ve learned quite a few positive (what to do) and negative (what not to do) lessons from my individual experience at Occupy–but none more important than the power, meaning and value of connecting our struggles.
In many aspects, Occupy encapsulated the future of textured resistance to a textured repressive corporate reality. It’s not one problem, it’s many. The sources of those many problems must each and everyone of them be challenged, just like each and every one of them were diligently built up.
It’s not just the military spending (now 56% of our budget), or just Glass-Steagal, or just Citizens United, or just the vote being stolen from old folks, and students and minorities, or just the full blown attack on unions–the last economic fulcrum of resistance for many in the working class, or just institutionalized sexism that underpays women, or just a public education system asphyxiated by budget cuts into failure (by the same greedfiends who are now looking to repeat their failures by privatizing even more of our schools), or just a food system dependent on abused land, abused livestock and abused labor, or just a healthy post office having its numbers mangled to make it look broke, or just a social security system greedily eyed by the same Big Finance that has trashed our economy multiple times, or just the institutionalized racism that criminalizes impoverished, black and latino males, or just the “necessary crimes” and “collateral damage” of never-ending empire spurred on by a financial sector that represents about 3/4ths of GDP of all goods producing industries in this country.
It’s all of these things and so much more, and all of these things connected. Occupy not only understood this, but it was shaped by an unshakable awareness of the inter-connectivity of these struggles that animated the thousands of central activists that evangelized and organized for the movement.
For my friends who believe in more formal, institutional approaches, from voting to public hearings to petition drives, they have clear evidence of both where we’ve made gains when we’ve participated and the losses we’ve experienced when we’ve opted out.
So if you put together a few lefties of different perspectives together after a protest or barbecue, this is why you’ll see an almost raging (and perhaps justifiably so) reaction by the institutionally-inclined change-maker to notions that “there’s no point” in these official and institutional efforts because the “system is too rigged.”
The rage comes from knowing first off just how much has been lost during our absence in these institutional fights. The rage also comes from once more encountering the woefully self-contradictory position of admitting the system is plied and populated by corrupt forces and using that as an excuse to avoid populating or plying the system so that it’s not corrupt. Imagine your reaction for example to an oil company saying “we’re not cleaning up the Gulf–it’s too dirty to be cleaned.”
For my more populist friends, though, especially any inclined towards awareness campaigns, direct action, grassroots community organization, they see a gap there that’s not being addressed. We on the left, especially as split as we can sometimes be with our micro-obsessive philosophical slapfights, can really be fractured off into very small, individual numerical and power-minorities that can then easily be juxtaposed by corporate media and politicians to either their own sizable corporate-sponsored partisans or the great mass of politically unmoved, unmotivated, and thus presumably not politically unhappy, population.
In short, argues the populist part of my brain, what use is voting if you’re vastly in the minority position? You’ll just lose all the more publicly (hence, many see work on the general conversation as a central part of their own struggle and second only to direct action in defense of people and communities). Moreover, even if you win by vote, but you haven’t built the culture and social movements to maintain a public discourse and sustainable psychology on these important matters, this generation’s hardfought inches of progress, are the next generation’s easily forgotten and stolen rights.
From both the cultural argument for more awareness-raising and direct democracy, to the demographic angle, there’s quite a lot of validity in the populist themes. Peel the union workers off from that core of worker solidarity and they’re just a small and shrinking part of the population. Peel off those indebted with over a trillion dollars in college debt, and they themselves are numerically not a majority of the population. Peel of the struggling single mothers, the senior citizens, the teachers, the abused communities of color–and by themselves they are a minority.
Our best mechanism for change, our solidarity, demands that we find ways to rebind our struggles together towards larger shared goals. The best way to do that is not to wait around until your own community is under the gun by some colonizing corporation and then to go around looking for solidarity. Quite the opposite. We must constantly, and as an imperative of our power, morals and politics, move to a position of solidarity with communities that are being oppressed. Time after time, and forever, if we want to live in a free world, we have to make that leap of faith for each others’ communities.
Occupy has taught me that I need to go make solidarity’s first “leap of faith” myself, as we all must, in relating to and then supporting communities in their particular struggles. I want our centrist friends to help us get GMO labeling. I want them to help us tear down our dehumanizing, economy-crushing military industrial complex. I want them fighting with us street activists against domestic surveillance and an ugly American heritage of police brutality.
If I want all that from them, I have to look for places where they need my solidarity too. Us popular democracy leftists, and us folks in the “left-of-liberal” crowd should remember that our liberal and centrist friends will always need our solidarity in the ballot box, but especially this year to prevent a millionaire of profound detachment from ruining our national community along the lines of the Dark Ages of the Bush Era.
I learned this from Occupy. Well, to be honest, Occupy and a cup of coffee.
One Saturday morning I went down to Liberty Plaza to interview new arrivals, especially focusing on differing geographic and economic backgrounds. The corporate media was already trying to make Occupy seem like a hullabaloo of entitled, out of touch confused weirdos.
As I walked into the park I saw a broad-shouldered, blonde man who was surrounded by numerous flags, staring eagerly into the rest of the Occupy crowd. Unsure if he was there to protest with Occupy or at Occupy, I asked him how he’d gotten there and some of his general motivations.
Julian very generously told me about his background but made what I thought was a strange point as we parted ways. We drank coffee from one of the many breakfast carts around the park and as we finished them he ended his personal history in eco-activism by saying, “it’s like this cup of coffee–how do I make it so this cup of coffee is not an instrument of oppression?”
It seemed a funny thing to me at the time, perhaps a trippy or tripped up metaphor, but I’ve never really been able to shake the question.
How do we make it so that even a cup of coffee isn’t an instrument of oppression? How do I ensure labor standards and fair wages (perhaps even employee ownership) for the folks growing, picking, roasting, shipping and brewing my coffee? How do I ensure those steps along the way aren’t destroying people, communities or the environmental neighborhoods we all depend on? How do I inform consumer communities that fellow members of their worker communities are being abused to bring them a cheaper cup of coffee at an ever-expanding profit for some huge corporation? What level of human change and what level of institutional change is required before, as mundane as it sounds, I can have a cup of coffee that has not, in even a penny of its value or a second of its life and production process, created or exacerbated human suffering?
The choice has never been either popular democracy or institutional change–the choice has always been do both or get neither.
I can’t, and should not, get the regulations I want without the legitimacy of public debate and laws of a well-informed majority consensus. But that consensus, that critical mass we build, is just powerless and soon-frustrated culture without acting to institutionalize, legitimize and legalize our politics and economics into the historic codification of this national community’s basic legal and ethical principles.
These are the two pistons that drive us forward. Dramatic community action. Purposeful political participation.
If we use just one or neither, our broad populist efforts at a better, more sustainable life are doomed to forever stall. From public awareness to showing up at a public hearing, I either engage every access-point available to me in a democracy (including the voting booth) or I have conceded it to corrupt and/or corporate forces ever prowling to snatch off just a few more of our commonly inherited resources.
So I’ll be there, on September 17, to celebrate yet another neuron connecting in our collective movement’s intelligence. I’ll be there, to not only record one more beautiful moment of human evolution through popular democracy, but to myself once more participate in democratic exchange about direct approaches to improving our communities for each other while building long-term mechanisms for patterns of sustainable living that include dignity and rights for all stakeholders (including nature). I’ll be there to celebrate the one year birthday of Occupy, one more eruption of people power. I’ll be there to connect with others and to discover ways we can collectively focus our energies into increasing our numbers so that whether in the picket, boycott or ballot box, we can effectively evolve towards those better ways of living.
And I’ll also be there on Tuesday, November 6, participating in the democratic mechanisms guaranteed to me (however weakened by things like Citizens United and the disenfranchisement of millions). If I do not limit my civic participation to voting, voting can at least prevent increased suffering by a situation getting dramatically worse when one of the Right Wingers takes power.
On this point, vote-boycotting leftists and I part ways. Tactically speaking, your vote might increase or decrease suffering each and every election day. It bears repeating: when your philosophy justifies increasing or allowing the increase of human suffering, in that very moment it is rendered inhumane, self-serving philosophical garbage.
I have to vote, just like I have to get active in all other aspects of my democracy, not because this or that politician needs my action but because other people do. This is what I have learned from my fellow stakeholders in the democracy. This is what Occupy taught me.