As mainstream media finally take notice of Occupy Wall Street and liberal observers tone down their criticisms of the action, more and more first hand accounts are making it out to the general public. Madison activists Jenna Pope and Arthur Kohl-Riggs have been there for a week phoning, tweeting and facebooking in reports. One of Arthur’s videos of the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge went viral and got picked up by news outlets around the globe.
According to the occupytogether.org website, occupations are planned for 323 other US cities, and some have already begun. From major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore to Frankfort, KY, Appleton, WI and McAllen, TX, outraged people are gathering to talk about how to resist the forces Wall St. has come to symbolize – the obscene concentration of wealth in the hands of a small fraction of people on the planet, and the consequent social and environmental degradation that occurs as a direct result of these forces.
Multiple participant descriptions of the Occupy Wall Street scene at Liberty Plaza leave me with an impression very similar to my assessment of the Wisconsin state capitol occupation last spring. What was happening in Madison and what seems to be happening in lower Manhattan is the creation and holding of a political and social space of possibility where real, challenging conversations happen among generally good-willed strangers toward ever-emerging visions about how society should be organized, and where debates about tactics through which that vision could be realized can take place.
Participating in such liberated and liberating spaces gives people a sense of their own individual value as well as their collective power. Consumerist, market-driven values are turned on their head in these spaces as the spigots of material and spiritual generosity are opened wide, allowing for the organization and distribution of goods and services in ways that are not conceivable within what we have come to accept as conventional society. Last spring, the daily dose of the latest Republican legislative, legal or administrative power-grabbing maneuver came as crushing news. Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, they did. Collective bargaining? Finished. Supreme Court election? Possibly stolen. Budget with unprecedented cuts to human services and education? Passed. Concentration of power in the executive? Done shamelessly and with very little resistance. Congressional and legislative gerrymandering? Complete within a few weeks. Voter suppression? Now it’s the law.
Amidst the early stages of this onslaught, the occupied Capitol was always there to bolster spirits and serve as an organizing space. During the times I wasn’t there, it asserted a constant, irresistible pull on my thoughts and feelings. Even on the coldest day and with the worst piece of news, stepping over the threshold to the pulsing of the drums in the rotunda and the defiant chants and songs of the thousands of people inside was like walking through the looking glass. Armageddon and the splintering of society on the outside; solidarity, sustenance and hope on the inside. The occupied Capitol was charged with a complex sense of urgency, sorrow and joy.
Any time of day or night you could strike up a conversation with someone that opened your heart just a little bit more and left you better informed and feeling more connected. It seems trite, but the quality of this kind of liberated space can’t be adequately explained. You really did have to be there. As far as I’m concerned, Occupy Wall Street has already succeeded, not only by giving hundreds and thousands of people object lessons in how to embody one’s full humanity and negotiate with others in this kind of radically democratic space, but also in that it has inspired hundreds of other occupations across the country and into Canada.
Those occupations have the potential to give folks who are rooted in those communities similar experiences. These in turn could form the cultural groundwork for launching successful, pointed political and direct action campaigns out of a genuine sense of solidarity on the ground where they live. Although the Madison occupation was demobilized after three weeks by a variety of factors (mostly having to do with our collective deference to the authority of political parties, national organizations and the police), the legacy of those days remains. During organizing and political meetings in Madison now, participants are beginning to see each other differently.
There are more and different people in the rooms. We’re reaching out to each other more and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. The value and meaning of solidarity is discussed, debated and lived. We know each other in ways that we didn’t a year ago, which means that we have a much more refined sense of who can and can’t do what when things need to be done.
I wish the best to the multitudes of others in their endeavors to claw back a little space for struggle to occur with decency, respect and solidarity through the occupation events happening worldwide. As we move forward into these uncharted waters, may we have the grace to do so with determination, fearlessness, honesty and generosity of spirit. Solidarity Forever!
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.