I am not actually occupying Iowa City (although this being Iowa City, we are transforming, not occupying. Liberating was rejected on the grounds of being too confrontation and sharing on the grounds that someone did not want to share with the 1%). My six-month’s pregnant old lady butt is instead occupying my sofa, which is where I’ve been sleeping lately because it seems to result in less back pain that sleeping on my bed. But I did stop by the occupation/transformation at College Green Park last night and stayed for a couple hours worth of the General Assembly, which churned out a preliminary statement of intent and a statement of nonviolence in two hours.
If you’ve ever been a part of consensus decision-making, especially in a group of 200 people, you’ll know that two statements in two hours is actually kind of a record. As I was telling a friend, it’s always instructive to remember the story of the SDS chapter in New Jersey that once spent 24 hours trying to decide if they could take a day off to go to the beach.
Decision-making of the sort being practiced at College Green Park and in public spaces all over the country is not something a lot of people are really willing to do. Even those of us who participate in such things are likely occasionally to say Dude, let’s just pick a word already. But that, of course, spins off into a debate about whether and how words matter.
Regular life affords few opportunities for such debate. Oh, sure, advertisers and politicians argue about wording all the time. But advertisers and politicians have a mission that’s about convincing other people, not about satisfying them. Wording a statement as an activist is about convincing other people, sure, but it’s also about defining yourself. It’s about defining and creating the kind of world and society that you want. In the beginning was the Word, and in some sense even atheists function that way.
I loved being at the park last night not because I really love sitting on the ground for two hours and repeating everything everyone says in phrases and twinkling with my hands to show approval. What I love is seeing people engaged in the process of creating something, watching them get to feel — for some for the first time — that they are making something that is real and true.
When I got home last night, I listened to the Friday installment of Planet Money. I have a perverse love of economic news and analysis (I lay it entirely at the feet of Louis Rukeyser for being so funny and dapper), even though it routinely pisses me off. Despite what the right wing seems to think, NPR, especially in the form of Planet Money, is not even remotely left-wing. It’s taken as a default position that capitalism is good, that the democratic process as displayed in the United States works, that growth is good. I disagree with almost everything they say. On last night’s show, they decided to visit Occupy Wall Street. I was immediately worried. It’s going to be like the time they interviewed “a socialist,” I thought (although to be fair, they poked no more fun at him than they did at the folks at libertarian summer camp, who were checking the price of gold on their smartphones in order to calculate how much gold to offer for goods at the camp). But it was actually pretty good: they are the first media people I’ve heard to understand that the part of the point of the protest is the protest. What we want for the larger world is what we are creating for ourselves. If hundreds of people living rather uncomfortably in a public place and sleeping on the ground can come to consensus, why the hell can’t the grown ups?
I don’t speak for anyone else at any Occupy event. But for me, at least, it’s true. The means is the end. Or, as one of my favorite bits of writing from another era put it,
We conducted a long struggle, assuming responsibilities we should not have been made to assume, heartbreakingly alone until the end, taking time out from our studies and our lives to do a job that should not have needed to be done. And we comported ourselves with dignity and grace, on the whole unexpectedly so, and with good hearts and kindness for each other. Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering within ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting.