To be fair, I wouldn’t say I occupied anything.
I went down to the Statehouse to participate in Occupy Columbus today, but only stayed for a few hours. Less of an occupation on my part, more of a visitation. It was a beautiful fall day, sunny and crisp, the kind of weather people are referring to when they talk about how they love fall. Real football weather. There was a throng of people on the sidewalk in front of the Statehouse, and down the center of High Street was a solid line of police cruisers.
The cops didn’t seem to be causing anyone any trouble.
This was to be be my first interaction with the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York about a month ago and has since inspired similar protests in cities across the country and incited a hurricane of smug dissent on message boards the internet over from the type of creeps whose greatest pleasure is to tear down anyone who ever takes a stand on anything. You know the creeps I mean, the types who copy all their ideas from South Park and pass it off as original thinking. Those folks have been hyperventilating in the weeks since Occupy Wall Street started, usually -and predictably- basing their criticisms on some stereotype of the protesters themselves rather than confronting the issues that they are raising. Oh, you’re a college student? Clearly, you’re a spoiled brat. You’re unemployed? Then you must be an entitled loafer looking for a handout. You own an electronic device? Well, then shame on you for wanting a job that pays your winter heating bills or a healthcare system that doesn’t bankrupt you should you have the moral ineptitude to get sick. On my way down to the rally, I was aware of the danger that my natural inclination toward sarcasm could lead me down exactly such a cowardly, unenlightened path. I could spend all of my time making fun of people and become just another priggish know-it-all with something snarky to say about the Occupiers. I resolved to steel myself against the nose-in-the-air, self-satisfied, willfully uninformed irony that tends to negate all discourse in these dark times.
With my guitar slung over my shoulder, I waded into the crowd. The first thing I noticed was a young man standing up on the low stone barrier to the Statehouse lawn and making statements that the people huddled around him would then repeat in unison. I thought they were attempting some sort of a Fight Club reenactment (it was reminiscent of the scene where the members of Project Mayhem all gathered around repeating, “his name is Robert Paulsen.” This, by the way was not a completely improbable assumption, as a great deal of activism these days patterns itself after popular movies, but more on that later…), and was immediately turned off. Once a second speaker stood up and the crowd resumed the same behavior, chanting her words as she came to the end of each sentence, I realized that what they were doing was not in fact a creepy cult routine but a resourceful way to overcome the lack of a public address system. The gathered mass turned themselves into a sort of human microphone, amplifying each speaker’s words not only in in volume but importance, as only with intense effort could one repeat someone’s words without thinking about them. It was the kind of PA they might have used in ancient times, if the ancients hadn’t been content to let the thundering voices of the great orators run roughshod over everyone else. On one hand, I found this solution elegant and ingenious. On the other hand, I found it infuriating because I had personally seen someone with a megaphone in the crowd and knew there was a simpler way.
The speakers were a diverse group, reflecting the diversity of the movement itself. Some read prepared remarks; some extemporaneously shared the personal struggles that they have faced in this crisis born in the contradictions of capitalism and spurred on to greater depths of cruelty by unrelenting corporate domination of every aspect of our society since; some were practiced activists, others were working stiffs, sixties leftovers, anarchists and college kids. I think there were even some of the dreaded communists the message boards have been so upset over addressing the crowd. There were liberals there, too, but with this subtle difference: regardless of how bland anyone’s political tastes may have been, no one involved in this movement could have any illusions that the Democratic party is capable of solving the problems they had come out to the forbidding, windswept squares downtown to protest. That simple fact explains the power and possibility of this movement. It’s not about funneling popular anger into yet another doomed attempt to trade one political party for another; it is about ending a corrupt system that subordinates the needs of the millions in this country who work for a living to the avarice of those who extract profit from our labor.
Peppering the crowd were several protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masked. I want to say they were all men, but I don’t have any proof
of that. I see a mustache on a face and I think it’s a dude. Maybe it’s the result of the terrifying experiences I had as a youth in the Utica Haunted Forest, but I find mingling with masked people to be unnerving. One such person approached and turned out to be Michael Ravage from Screaming Urge, who I have a ton of respect for. It was a very Shakespearean moment, and left me a bit shaken.
The Guy Fawkes masks were popularized by that movie V for Vendetta a few years back. For a while they were the symbol of the 9-11 conspiracy movement, then they were associated with people who protested against Scientology. Now the Guy Fawkes look seems to be gaining popularity in the Occupy movement. I think it’s meant to invoke the specter of some kind of gleeful terrorism, some stance of faceless defiance. In the movie, the whole mob of common people don those masks and throw a big revolution. Everyone becomes a superhero, and the fascist authorities are unable to to subdue the popular upsurge. A powerful symbol, but I didn’t really like that movie, so it is, alas, spoiled for me.
A meeting of the General Assembly began at around one-thirty. Here, i thought, was my chance to see democracy in action, the beating heart of the Occupation. Five minutes into it, I remembered how tedious these kinds of assemblies can be and started to get antsy. Fifteen minutes later, while the assembly was still arguing over time limits for speakers, I started looking for somewhere to go have a sandwich. Like many of the activist organizations I’ve been involved in over the years, Occupy Columbus relies on consensus decision making, which means that everyone has to agree on an proposal for it to be adopted. It’s a deceptively undemocratic arrangement that allows any individual to block any proposal regardless of how much the rest of the group wants to get on with things. At its best, consensus decision making is a recipe for mind-numbing hours of tedium and debate over obscure points of order. At its worst invites the tyranny of the intransigent and cripples organizations.
I know my energy would be better spent involving myself in these meetings than standing aside and criticizing the way they are conducted. It is not my purpose to mock the organizational structure of the protests. I looked back in on the GA after about half an hour, and they seemed to be on the verge of agreeing to an agenda for the meeting that they had yet to really start. It is a testament to the enormous commitment of these activists that they would be willing to stand there, repeating the speakers, paying attention, putting their names on the stack, waiting their turn, being respectful, through so much boring, frustrating back-and-forth for their cause. They may get hung up on side issues now and again, there may be the odd stubborn hippie intent on derailing everything, but these folks aren’t taking orders from some national organization in the thrall of entrenched power; they’re creating a movement to rescue the American working class from the nightmare of greed, disregard and decadence that our capitalist overlords have drug us into, and they’re doing it by themselves every miserable step of the way.
But it wasn’t miserable. Without a doubt, the prevailing mood as I slunk between the people at the rally was one of joy. It was light on the singing and chanting species of enthusiasm that usually lets you know when a protest is really starting to cook, but people were excited to be there. It’s likely that a lot of them, like me, had been reading about OWS for weeks and were anxious for the opportunity to get involved. There was a nervous, itchy quality to the excitement there on the statehouse sidewalk, like teenagers on a first date, on edge and unsure of how to act. All over America, people have been waiting, slipping under a flood of economic disaster while the rich ask us to bear the burden of their sins and our politicians in both parties tell us to sacrifice. Their path to recovery is worse than a swindle. We’ve been swindled for decades and now we’re being crucified. Their plan is to make us pay, to cut back on our wages, our living standards, to destroy our education and the services we depend on, to let life in this country get worse until things are so bad for us that it becomes profitable to start investing in businesses again, then start hiring us back at minimum wage with no benefits and call that an economic recovery. But we know there has to be another way. That’s why this movement is growing. We’ve seen what this system has to offer us and we’re ready to chuck it for something better. We can imagine something like democracy that doesn’t allow a tiny minority of the powerful to enforce their will on the rest of the population. Whatever limitations the Occupy movement may have, it contains the kernel of possibility to start moving toward a better world, that mustard seed of faith in the common people that can move the mountain of wealth, privilege and entrenched power and throw it into the sea.
As I’m writing this, the latest news is that Occupy Wall Street has taken Times Square in New York and the riot cops are moving in. This is the beginning of a movement. We can’t win if we don’t fight.