10.12.2011

occupy wall street: a view from nyc and how you can participate, even if you can't physically occupy

Last night we attended a meeting of the Toronto International Socialists, because I wanted to hear a report-back from a member who has just returned from New York, where he spent a day at Occupy Wall Street.

Chris is 19 years old, originally from New Jersey, and he attended with his dad, age 57. What he witnessed filled him with joy and hope and excitement - and hearing about it did the same for me. I'll be in New York City in early November, and I can't wait to join the occupation for a day.

After I relate Chris' observations, I'll pass along ideas on how we all can get involved, no matter what our availability or ability to physically join the occupation. So please stay tuned or scroll down.

* * * *

Chris was part of the occupation from an entire day and well into the night, and Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park) was packed with people the entire time. The gathering was so organized, efficient and and well maintained - yet so completely democratic and participatory - that he said, "It blew my mind".

There's one area with food - well stocked with delicious, nutritious food, all free for all. There's another area with clothes - also all free for anyone to use or take. In another area, computers and other devices are running on solar power for everyone to use. Another area serves as an information centre and a base of operations. There's a library! It's called "The People's Library" and all the books have OWS written on the spine. Gotta love that. Overall, there's no shortage of anything.

[Update! Something I forgot: Chris brought back a copy of The Occupied Wall Street Journal. It's terrific! You can see and download the first issue here and the second issue here.]

A General Assembly is held every night at 7:00 p.m. Anyone who attends can participate, and everyone who participates is part of the voice and the leadership of Occupy Wall Street. Chris said that every GA begins with a long explanation of the intention and process of the meeting. Participants communicate with hand and arm signals, and the signals are reviewed every night.

This redundancy is purposely built into the system, so anyone who may be attending for the first time will understand the process. I thought this was brilliant. Most of us know what it's like to join a group mid-stream. This daily review builds a welcome for newcomers and ensures continuity for the system.

The GA is the governmental body of Occupy Wall Street, but it isn't about politics or ideology. It's about the material concerns of the participants. Everyone is free to - and encouraged to - form their own working groups to discuss ideas, strategies, issues, problems. If there's a concern, someone from the working group presents the issue to the GA, where it's discussed until consensus is reached.

Chris described an issue he saw dealt with through this process. Apparently there's been a lot of criticism about the appearance of the park - the mess, the ragtag look. Some people had the idea of OWS collectively purchasing storage bins for everyone to use. This would create more space on the ground, and also help people be more mobile. (It's easier to pick up and move a storage bin than gather all your stuff without anything to pack it in.) Some people had concerns that the storage bins be purchased from a fair trade company. So these issues were discussed and debated. At first, consensus could not be reached because of the fair trade issue... but eventually it was.

[Now imagine representatives from this and other local GAs reporting to another level of GAs, a regional level, then those GAs reporting to a larger level... Participatory democracy. What a concept.]

Chris described joyous drum circles that included people of all ages and from all different social groups. He described a place with its own "safer spaces" security group, but almost no need for it, as there's no theft and no violence.

There have been no arrests since the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge, and 100% of the violence has come from the police. The NYPD is present in tremendous numbers - walls of blue. (You've probably heard that JPMorgan Chase has donated $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation, the largest gift in the Foundation's history. There's nothing that money can't buy. If only those police officers realized that they're working for the wrong side.)

Chris also described the broad spectrum of ideology and ideas that he saw expressed at Liberty Square. There are people carrying Ron Paul signs, libertarians from the right. There are people carrying socialism signs. There's a constant dialogue, and no one seems afraid to express her or his ideas or beliefs.

The criticism of OWS that I see most often in the mainstream media is "fuzzy", "vague", "they aren't clear on their demands". But as Chris Hedges points out, "What are their demands?" is the wrong question. As my comrade Chris put it last night, "demands" are something we ask for so the ruling class can implement them for us. This is something completely different. This is The People taking back the process.

* * * *

After Chris' report, there was a discussion about Occupy Toronto, which kicks off on October 15, a discussion that is happening all over Canada, all over the US, and all over the world.

Someone raised a question that's been on my mind from the beginning. Many of us, most of us, can't sleep out in a tent in a square. Whether it's age or physical health or the simple fact of having to go to work every day to pay the bills and put food on the table, we can't put our lives on hold to join this joyous encampment.

But we recognize this movement, as Naomi Klein said recently, as the most important thing in the world right now. What can we do?

Of course you can donate food, sleeping bags, blankets, warm clothes, books, a laptop. That's important, but it's the easy part, and you can probably do more.

You can attend for a day. You can attend for an hour each day. You can attend for a few hours each week. You can sleep out one night. You can have your breakfast in the occupation. You can stop by after work for a few hours before you go home. I'm reading stories and tweets about people doing this all over the US. It can happen all over Canada, too.

There's also something very direct and very important you can do: you can join a General Assembly. A GA will take place every night during an occupation. Everyone who attends is participating in the governing body of the people's movement. Even if you've never done anything like this before in your life, you can attend a GA and see what people-powered democracy looks like.

3 comments:

allan said...

This is The People taking back the process.

C noted that since the Bridge incident, many people are wary of another march, because of indiscriminate police brutality. Radical changes do not happen overnight, obviously, but how can the "process" be taken back if the protestors, no matter how large their number, remain in the square?

Ross Wolfe, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, has written a lengthy essay on OWS at his blog, The Charnel-House. Despite revising (somewhat) his original negative opinion about OSW, he still seems both quick to find fault and overly proud of his knowledge of history.

laura k said...

Radical changes do not happen overnight, obviously, but how can the "process" be taken back if the protestors, no matter how large their number, remain in the square?

As in Egypt, the square is the beginning - a model for change. We don't know how and where it will paly out.

Despite revising (somewhat) his original negative opinion about OSW, he still seems both quick to find fault and overly proud of his knowledge of history.

It's easy to criticize, difficult to organize.

Gunner said...

Damn I wish I had made it the meeting yesterday, I haven't made it to a meeting in months. Unfortunately I was away in Vt over the weekend and was decompressing after the trip prior to going back to work that night. Sounds like it was a pretty good one. Hmmm... North American Fall anyone?