Letter to a Dead Man About the Occupation of Hope
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
Dear young man who died on the fourth day of this turbulent 2011, dear Mohammed Bouazizi,
I want to write you about an astonishing year—with three months yet to run. I want to tell you about the power of despair and the margins of hope and the bonds of civil society.
I wish you could see the way that your small life and large death became a catalyst for the fall of so many dictators in what is known as the Arab Spring.
We are now in some sort of an American Fall. Civil society here has suddenly hit the ground running, and we are all headed toward a future no one imagined when you, a young Tunisian vegetable seller capable of giving so much, who instead had so much taken from you, burned yourself to death to protest your impoverished and humiliated state.
You lit yourself on fire on December 17, 2010, exactly nine months before Occupy Wall Street began. Your death two weeks later would be the beginning of so much. You lit yourself on fire because you were voiceless, powerless and evidently without hope. And yet you must have had one small hope left: that your death would have an impact; that you, who had so few powers, even the power to make a decent living or protect your modest possessions or be treated fairly and decently by the police, had the power to protest. As it turned out, you had that power beyond your wildest dreams, and you had it because your hope, however diminished, was the dream of the many, the dream of what we now have started calling the 99 percent.
And so Tunisia erupted and overthrew its government, and Egypt caught fire, as did Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya, where the nonviolent protests elsewhere turned into a civil war the rebels have almost won after several bloody months. Who could have imagined a Middle East without Ben Ali of Tunisia, without Mubarak, without Qaddafi? And yet here we are, in the unimaginable world. Again. And almost everywhere.
Japan was literally shaken loose from its plans and arrangements by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and that country has undergone profound soul-searching about values and priorities. China is turbulent, and no one knows how much longer the discontent of the repressed middle class and the hungry poor there will remain containable. India: who knows? The Saudi government is so frightened it even gave women a few new rights. Syrians wouldn’t go home even when their army began to shoot them down. Crowds of up to a million Italians have been protesting austerity measures in recent months. The Greeks, well, if you’ve been following events, you know about the Greeks. Have I forgotten Israel? Huge demonstrations against the economic status quo there lasted all summer and into this fall.
As you knew at the outset, it’s all about economics. This wild year, Greece boiled over again into crisis with colossal protests, demonstrations, blockades and outright street warfare. Icelanders continued their fight against bailing out the banks that sank their country’s economy in 2008 and continue pelting politicians with eggs. Their former prime minister may become the first head of state to face legal charges in connection with the global financial collapse. Spanish youth began to rise up on May 15.
Distinctively, in so many of these uprisings the participants were not advocating for one party or a simple position but for a better world, for dignity, for respect, for real democracy, for belonging, for hope and possibility—and their economic underpinnings. The Spanish young whose future had been sold out to benefit corporations and their 1 percent were nicknamed the indignados, and they lived in the plazas of Spain this summer. Occupied Madrid, like Occupied Tahrir Square, preceded Occupy Wall Street.
In Chile, students outraged by the cost of an education and the profound inequities of their society have been demonstrating since May—with everything from kiss-ins to school occupations to marches of 150,000 or more. Forty thousand students marched against “education reform” in Colombia last week. And in August in Britain the young went on a rampage that tore up London, Birmingham and dozens of other communities, an event that began when the police shot Mark Duggan, a dark-skinned 29-year-old Londoner. Young Britons had risen up more peaceably over tuition hikes the winter before. There, too, things are bleak and volatile—something I know you would understand. In Mexico, a beautiful movement involving mass demonstrations against the drug war has arisen, triggered by the death of another young man, and by the grief and vision of his father, left-wing poet Javier Cicilia.
The United States had one great eruption in Wisconsin this winter, when the citizenry occupied their state capitol building in Madison for weeks. Egyptians and others elsewhere on the planet called a local pizza parlor and sent pies to the occupiers. We all know the links. We’re all watching. So the Occupy movement has spilled over from Wall Street. Hundreds of occupations are happening all over the North America: in Oklahoma City and Tijuana, in Victoria and Fort Lauderdale.
The 99 percent
We are the 99 percent is the cry of the Occupy movement. This summer one of the flyers that helped launch the Occupy Wall Street protest read: “We, the 99 percent, call for an open general assembly Aug. 9, 7:30 pm at the Potato Famine Memorial NYC.” It was an assembly to discuss the September 17 occupation-to-come.
The Irish Hunger Memorial, so close to Wall Street, commemorates the million Irish peasants who starved in the 1840s, while Ireland remained a food-exporting country and the landed gentry continued to profit. It’s a monument to the exploitation of the many by the few, to the forces that turned some of our ancestors—including my mother’s four Irish grandparents—into immigrants, forces that are still pushing people out of farms, homes, nations, regions.
The Irish famine was one of the great examples of those disasters of the modern era that are not crises of scarcity but of distribution. The United States is now the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and has an abundance of natural resources, as well as of nurses, doctors, universities, teachers, housing and food—so ours, too, is a crisis of distribution. Everyone could have everything they need and the rich would still be rich enough, but you know that enough isn’t a concept for them. They’re greedy, and their thirty-year grab for yet more has carved away at what’s minimally necessary for the survival and dignity of the rest of us. So the Famine Memorial couldn’t have been a more appropriate place for Occupy Wall Street to begin.
The 99 percent, those who starve during famines and lose their livelihoods and homes during crashes, were going to respond to the 1 percent who had been served so well by the Bush administration and by the era of extreme privatization it ushered in. As my friend Andy Kroll reported at TomDispatch, “The top 1 percent of earners enjoyed 65% of all income growth in America for much of the decade” just passed. “In 2010,” he added, “20.5 million people, or 6.7% of all Americans, scraped by with less than $11,157 for a family of four—that is, less than half of the poverty line.” You can’t get by on less than $1,000 a month in this country where a single visit to an emergency room can cost your annual income, a car twice that, and a year at a private college more than four times that.
Later in August came the website started by a 28-year-old New York City activist, we are the 99 percent, to which hundreds daily now submit photographs of themselves. Each of them also testifies to the bleak conditions they find themselves in, despite their hard work and educations which often left them in debt, despite the promises dangled before them that (if they played the game right) they’d be safe, housed and living a part of that oversold dream.
It’s a website of unremitting waking nightmares, economic bad dreams that a little wealth redistribution would eliminate (even without eliminating the wealthy). The people contributing aren’t asking for luxuries. They would simply prefer not to be worked to death like so many nineteenth-century millworkers, nor to have their whole world come crashing down if they get sick. They want to survive with dignity, and their testimony will break your heart.
Mohammed Bouazizi, dead at 26, you to whom I’m writing, here is one of the recent posts at that site:
I am 26 years old. I am $134,000 in debt. I started working at 14 years old, and have worked Full-Time since I turned 20. I work in I.T. and got laid off in July 2011. I was LUCKY, and found a job RIGHT AWAY: with a Pay Cut and MORE HOURS. Now, I just found out that my Dad got laid off last week - after 18 YEARS with the same employer. I have debilitating (SP! Sorry!) O.C.D. and can’t take time away from work to get treatment because I can’t afford my mortgage payments if I don’t go to work, and I’m afraid I’ll lose my NEW job if I take time off!!! WE ARE THE 99 percent.
Some of the people at we are the 99 percent offer at least partial views of their faces, but the young IT worker quoted above holds a handwritten letter so long that it obscures his face. Poverty obscures your face too. It obscures your talents, potential, even your distinctive voice, and if it goes deep enough, it eradicates you by degrees of hunger and degradation. Poverty is a creation of the systems against which people all over the planet are revolting this wild year of 2011. The Arab Spring, after all, was an economic revolt. What were all those dictatorships and autocracies for, if not to squeeze as much profit as possible out of subjugated populations—profit for rulers, profit for multinational corporations, profit for that 1 percent.
“We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers,” was the slogan of the first student protest called in Spain this year. Your beautiful generation, Mohammed Bouazizi, has arisen and is bringing the rest of us along, even here in the United States.
The People’s Microphone
Its earliest critics seemed to think that Occupy Wall Street was a lobbying group whose chosen task on this planet should be to create a package of realistic demands. In other words, they were convinced that the occupiers should become supplicants, asking the powerful for some kind of handout like college debt forgiveness. They were suggesting that a dream as wide as the sky be stuffed into little bottles and put up for sale. Or simply smashed.
In the same way, they wanted this movement to hurry up and appoint leaders, so that there would be someone to single out and investigate, pick off or corrupt. At heart, however, this is a leaderless movement, an anarchist movement, catalyzed by the grace of civil society and the hard work of the collective. The Occupy movement—like so many movements around the world now—is using general assemblies as its form of protest and process. Its members are not facing the authorities but each other, coming to know themselves, trying to give rise to the democracy they desire on a small scale rather than merely railing against its absence on a large scale.
These are the famous Occupy general assemblies in which decisions are made by consensus and, in the absence of amplification (by order of the New York City police), the people’s mike is used: those assembled repeat what is said as it’s said, creating a human megaphone effect. This is accompanied by a small vocabulary of hand gestures, which help people participate in the complex process of a huge group having a conversation.
In other words, the process is also the goal: direct democracy. No one can hand that down to you. You live direct democracy in that moment when you find yourself participating in civil society as a citizen with an equal voice. Put another way, the Occupiers are not demanding that something be given to them but formulating something new. That it involves no technology, not even bullhorns, is itself remarkable in this wired era. It’s just passionate people together—and then Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, text messages, e-mails, and online sites like this one spread the word, along with some print media, notably the Occupied Wall Street Journal.
The beauty and the genius of this movement in this moment is that it has found a way to define its needs and desires without putting limits on them that would automatically exclude so many. In doing so, it has spoken to nearly all of us.