Beyond Obamaism: Occupy Wall Street and the Capacity to Hope

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Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

It’s been a month since I wrote a piece on Young Anabaptist Radicals about my experience of visiting Occupy Chicago. It was three days after they had started camping in front of the Federal Reserve of Chicago and 10 days after Occupy Wall Street (OWS) kicked off in New York. At the time, I wrote with a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. The visit gave me a glimpse into the sense of possibility that I remember from watching the Seattle protests but also a dose of skepticism bordering on cynicism. What could such a small group of people really do?

A month later, the answer seems clear: plenty. It still seems miraculous in many ways. While announcing the death of apathy and despair in the United States (as Michael Moore did at Occupy Oakland on Friday) is probably premature, the OWS movement has gone a long way towards tearing down the barriers that prevent so many of us from working together for change.

I’d like to share a few observations building on the framework that Steve Kryss developed in his article for the Mennonite Weekly Review. He named these parallels between the OWS movement and the Anabaptist movement that sprung up across cities in Europe nearly 500 years ago:

The Anabaptist movement emerged largely among the young. It moved through the urban contexts of educated Europeans without clarity but with a clear bent toward justice for the poor.

It emerged in and around the Peasant Revolts, which threatened established governments and religious perspectives. The radical Anabaptists were sympathetic to those whose lives were controlled by overlords.

Early Anabaptism was a movement of conversing, addressing powers and protesting. It was met with ridicule and with sympathy. There were dialogues and diatribes.

I notice three other parallels with early Anabaptism that inspire me:

Everyone is a leader/no leaders

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The focus of the Occupy movement is on everyone as leaders. It doesn’t sound too far from the emphasis that the Anabaptists places on everyone reading scripture for themselves. We look back on Anabaptists and pick out leaders like Menno Simons, but it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t on the scene at all until 1535, more than 10 years into the movement. It was hardly a leaderless movement, but compared to the contemporary hierarchies of princes and bishops, it was radically egalitarian and grass-roots.

I can’t help but contrast the OWS movement to the Obama campaign which rode the hope and change into the ground as a branding and marketing slogan. As one stood blissfully in Grant Park on the night of the election, I woke up the next morning to find that we’d swapped one president for another while the empire remained. For Obama, the “audacity of hope” meant one leader and 13 million people on an email list. For OWS, there’s an opportunity to be more than a follower. More on this in the section on process below

Persistence and growth in the face of persecution

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In the last week, there’s been a series of police crackdowns across the country on Occupy camps, the most visible of which has been the attack on Occupy Oakland by police with tear gas, flash bang grenades and rubber bullets. Scott Olsen was badly hurt. But police harassment began more than a month ago with Anthony Bologna’s mace attacks on protesters. The following weekend, on Oct. 1, more than 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Like many nonviolent movements, these incidences have mostly served to bolster and grow the movement. But this growth is not without the blood, sweat and tears of those who have spent weeks sleeping in tents or less. On Saturday evening I saw Joe, one of the young men that I photographed on my first visit to Occupy Chicago. He told me a little about what it was like to have been there for 30 days and to deal with all the ins and outs. It’s not easy.

On Saturday evening, I walked and talked with Barb, a 60 year old woman who had fallen behind the rest of the marchers through downtown. She told me that she’s been waiting for decades for people to stand up against corporate greed. She talked about watching the news when she was in seventh grade and hearing that president Kennedy was assassinated. And then Martin Luther King. And then Bobby Kennedy. For her, the message was clear:If you stand up for what is right, you’ll get killed. But the courage of Joe and the Occupy Chicago movement to stand up for justice had brought her downtown on a cold October evening to march through the loop with her sign.

Focus on Process

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In our interview last week, one of the lines that struck me most was from Robert Smith, a young man who had just been at Occupy Wall Street over a weekend. He said, "It’s clear that it’s more important to have everyone’s voice and everyone involved than to move forward." This was a line that he could have said cynically, but he delivered it with a real sense of wonder and joy.

Two days after talking with Robert, I went down to Occupy Chicago and sat in on my first General Assembly (GA), the daily decision-making body for the movement. This is the space where proposals are made, discussed and voted on (they need a nine-tenth majority to pass). Working committees also report back from their work and share announcements on upcoming events. For me, these meetings are the never center of the body of Occupy Chicago. It’s here where everyone can (and does) have a voice, but also where a remarkable culture around the rules of good process (stay on topic, keep it short) has developed. It’s a hard thing to describe in words. If you have the chance, I highly recommend a visit for yourself.

Along with its surface-level decision-making function, the GA also plays an important role in building ownership of decisions (and the OWS movement as a whole). When people are part of making a decision, it has much more meaning to them. It’s the means justifying the ends more than the other way around.

It is this commitment to process that takes the idea of everyone as leaders and finds a way to put it into practice. I believe it is also what created a sense of unity and cohesion through arrests and persecution. Like Anabaptists who met in caves, each Occupy city movement is developing a stronger self-identity each hour they spend deliberating on how to maintain their nonviolent discipline in the face of police brutality.

There’s still a part of me, as there was a month ago, that wonders if this movement will flame out and die. But little by little, the persistence and the process focus of this movement is drawing me in. And as I invest myself more and more in Occupy Chicago, I find the flame of real, authentic hope growing.

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Comments (3)

  1. Sam

    I really enjoy the decision making process-it’s very mediation/consensus focused, it reminds me of the Quaker process, and it definitely helps a community in the difficult work of functioning while seeking consensus. It’s always tricky to balance good process with effective results, but I wish them luck.

    Reply
  2. Tim B

    I still don’t understand what the movement is about. Even reading about it from its supporters leaves me with this vague sense of, simply, “the protesters are unhappy.”

    Reply
  3. Sam

    Tim B,
    The protesters are unhappy that society’s wealth has increasingly gone to benefit the richest 1% of Americans. That’s very different than just being ‘unhappy’.

    It seems like OWS has already succeeded in raising awareness around the country at the gross misdistribution of wealth in America, and has gotten politicians from President Obama to Rick Santorum to talk about inequality as a serious social problem.
    That seems like a good start already to me, and if it leads to concrete political change, like increased taxes on investment income, estates, or just income over 1 million dollars a year, or better regulation of bankers and corporations it would be even more of a successful movement.

    Reply

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