In hundreds of cities across the country, doctors, veterans, nurses, professionals, middle class, service industry and agricultural workers, indigenous and immigrant organizations, senior citizens, teachers, trade unionists, environmentalists and antiwar activists, and students of all ages add support for the Occupy movement. Steadily growing since its birth on Wall Street on September 17, despite the absence of a clear agenda, the "Occupy" movement demonstrates how strictly horizontal and decentralized democratic structures can create a new society out of a broken one.
Decades’ brewed public discontent has finally manifested itself into an massive and organized civil disobedience movement. The call for global social change has fully reached the United States.
Following the nonviolent spontaneous actions that overthrew dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, which were first brought to the United States by the Madison protests last February and March, the "global revolution" has pried its way into the mainstream of our political discourse.
With growing popularity and potential,the movement attracts society’s opinion leaders who are sympathetic to the cause, such as sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, hip-hop artist Immortal Technique, documentarian Michael Moore, actress Susan Sarandon, antiwar and women’s rights activist Medea Benjamin, and many others.
The growing public thirst for attention to the Occupy movement results in media attempts to grapple the movement, frenzying with questions like, "What are they protesting?" and "What are their objectives?" Mainstream media outlets are quick to dismiss the movement as either too poorly organized or simply unrealistic. Bloomberg Magazine, one of the major market-oriented journals in the U.S., claims in its headlines that the movement "needs goals" or will fizzle.
However, a lack of tangible political goals is not a deficiency for the movement, it is its strength. If the political parties, which are among the clearest of the protestors’ targets, are given a policy issue on which to take sides, the debate becomes institutionalized, facing dilution, which protestors fear. Therefore, the best thing the movement can do for itself is to keep its agenda hidden from the halls of the two-party government.
The lack of a clear agenda also allows the movement to attract folks from all walks of life, each with their own level of discontent, their own targ
ets, their own concerns. This is demonstrated by the fact that each week, the movement gains more traction from more and more among "the 99 percent." Articles like Bloomberg’s only demonstrate how the financial sector and the political system are reacting to the movement as it gains more and more ground: with fear.
Although the movement’s critics point to its lack of a coherent agenda and central structure, the ways in which this organized sigh of collective despair operates have the crucial potential to lay the blueprint for a functioning direct democracy. General Assemblies (GAs) in different cities use a variation of the following political organization: a highly horizontal, rather than top-down, and decentralized system based on the consensus and direct participation of all GA members.
Main St. challenges Wall St.
Take as an example the Occupy Wall Street movement, which held its largest General Assembly to date on Saturday, October 8. Any person can join the GA, and any GA member can start committees or join those already standing. The GA, which meets several times a week, is updated about what the committee does, and takes consensus-based votes on major decisions, creating a two-way feedback system.
A collective "human microphone" system of phrase repetition is used to ensure that all GA attendants, now surpassing the thousands in places like Wall Street, can hear what a speaker announces across entire parks and plazas. Anyone can get a speaking turn. There are working groups in which people volunteer and delegate important tasks, such as park cleanup. Legal assistance and free food tents, assisted by donations—particularly in pizza—coming in from all across the globe, are easily spotted. Most importantly, folks are encouraged to participate in sustaining the movement in whatever way they are able, from marching to key locations, leading yoga classes, joining drum circles to using their creativity and talent and expertise to promote the cause through art and media, or simply sitting around talking to others, promoting healthy debate and a truly democratic ethos.
Catching fire in the capital
In Washington, D.C., and increasingly, in cities all around the country, the Occupy Together movement has caught fire. In D.C.’s McPherson Square, the Occupy D.C. movement has stationed itself 24/7/365.
Like the Wall Street occupation, Occupy D.C. touts the slogan of "We Are the 99%." On its website, it clarifies what exactly the "99%" is, saying: "If you are upset with the economy, corporate person-hood, education, healthcare, the multiple wars we have, corruption–mainly money in politics, and anything associated with this in one way or another that you fall under the 99% and this movement is for you."
Citing criticisms that their movement, like the entire Occupy Together movement, does not have clear set goals laid out, Occupy D.C. says that they wish to "hear from the people what they want … before we can even think about releasing official demands."
Another group that has set up an occupation in D.C. is one called October 2011, whose movement "Stop the Machine: Create a New World" seeks to occupy Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue indefinitely.
The movement was started on Oct. 6 to mark the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan as well as the start of the austerity-ridden 2012 federal budget. Stop the Machine’s philosophy is that of nonviolent resistance in the same vein as the Arab Spring and the winter protests in Madison.
Like the Occupy D.C. movement, Stop the Machine does not have clear set goals at the moment. However, there are 15 core issues that they are concerned about and which they are forming committees around to deliberate courses of action. Some of these issues include human rights, corporate influence in politics, worker rights and militarism.
The interrelatedness of all these issues was on display when the Stop the Machine protests, in conjunction with Occupy D.C. and United for Peace and Justice, joined a rally that was held directly across the street from Freedom Plaza in opposition to the energy company Transcanada’s proposed $13 billion Keystone Pipeline project. The movements joined together after the federal hearings and marched down the streets of D.C. on Saturday afternoon.
The march ended at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, where Michael McPhearson, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, spoke in front of the protestors. McPhearson drew parallels between King’s age and the one we currently find ourselves in, bringing up his 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."
"One thing he called us in that speech was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. That’s because we were at war," McPhearson said. "Today we are at war, but we are certainly dropping more bombs on people around the world than any other nation. We have more troops deployed around the world than any other nation. We continue to be the greatest purveyor of war around the world."
Members of Afghans for Peace also spoke, and one member, Soraya Pakzad, spoke to the lack of an Afghan national voice and the main problems facing the country today.
"I ask you to keep in mind that it is the right of the Afghan people to self-determination, and for that to happen, they need to be empowered," Pakzad said. "And to empower the people, we need to refocus on our priorities. They’re living in poverty, they need food, shelter, healthcare, education."
Bill Holmes from Vietnam Veterans Against the War spoke to the movement’s thoughts about the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
"We are against THE war. Because every one of these theaters, every one of these theaters of combat is the war. … We must mourn our dead, but fight like hell for the living," Holmes said.
Occupy Together has 865 participating cities and growing, and Washington is starting to take notice of the movement’s strength. What occurred in Egypt last February were widely felt. In the United States, folks were touched by the idea that they too could finally unleash their desperation, their economic and social frustrations. Now, what occurs in the United States—the most powerful and influential country in the world—can imply systemic change for the entire planet.