The Occupy Wall Street protest has just rolled through its one-month anniversary, and this past week at Trinity Church’s neighborhood center, Charlotte’s Place, Trinity convened a panel of Zucotti Park’s resident organizers. They were self-described "punk kids" who offered a fascinating view into the month-old collective mind of the park-dwelling community.
The first thing I noticed was that the speakers weren’t referring to a protest, they were referring to a movement. And when asked point blank what they wanted to see happen because of what they were doing in the park, their answers were as diffuse and universal as communitarians from the 1960s: Peace. Harmony. Justice. Courageous Community Values.
But from the outset they used another word that intrigued me: Responsibility: They said they were trying to be responsive to what’s happening in the world, that they recognize that a powerful surge is taking place. They feel responsible to give voice to that.
As nebulous as that might sound at first, they spoke about it not as theory, but as practice. The organizers become most animated when they talked about what they were discovering about the daily building of a working community: how decisions were made, how to feed and clean up after hundreds of residents, how they were learning to deal with cranky, mean signs and their creators in the midst of a diligently uncensored community. Their makeshift village is impressive: the kitchen filters its gray water through charcoal, the lending library is better than many in small towns, and the daily General Assembly works on a 9/10th voting consensus.
They acknowledged that this was incredibly hard work, but they see their makeshift village, and all the others around the world that are springing up, as incubators in real time of civic awareness and duty. They were as excited about living inside the culture they were creating as they were about its effect on the wider world.
Their theme was consistently about moving from a sense of isolation and powerlessness to one of agency and connection to deepest purpose. They want to make a space where anyone with a sign and a message to share can feel that their voice matters and can be heard.
They talked about how their investment in the real-time on-the-ground lives of others and in the civic discourse has changed them forever, has made them feel part of something in a real, direct, and breathing way. One protestor put it bluntly: “I was watching this on the TV, and decided to turn it off and come down here to the park, and I discovered it’s a lot more fun to create something together. If they shut down this movement tomorrow it would have already changed my life.”
A protest can only happen because a deeper set of values are surfacing that run counter to some toxic prevailing norm, and this deeper Yes! seems to be taking shape slowly. Near the end of the forum, one member of the panel blurted out: “Really, this is not about occupying Wall Street; It’s about occupying everything!” He explained how the movement to him is about showing up for your life rather than abdicating, about being an agent instead of a victim, about getting involved rather than waiting for a “them” to take care of it.
Occupy Everything might be the best synthesis I’ve heard yet of the possibility that is germinating in the compost of this gathering. It should not be surprising that the protest signs talk about everything under the sun, because this greater Yes undergirds them all. At the end of the day the signs all seem to say the same thing; I am a subject, not an object to be polled and purchased and traded. I am not a commodity. The 99 percent slogan floating around Wall Street implies that in the end, we can only flourish collectively. It’s not utopian, or right wing, or libertarian to say that the more we take personal and collective responsibility for our civic life, the less “governing” - taming the selfish beast - needs to happen.
Whatever happens on Wall Street in the next month, “Occupy Everything” is my great takeaway of what this now-global wake-up call is, or can be. It’s more like a mantra, said to and for the self, and then lived out into the world one day at a time.
I’m going to start praying it regularly, and see where it takes me.