Compassion Is Our New Currency
The word “occupy” itself speaks powerfully to the American disappeared and the very idea of disappearance. It speaks to those who have lost their occupation or the home they occupied. In its many meanings, it’s a big tent. It means to fill a space, take possession of it, employ oneself, busy oneself, fill time. (In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the verb had a meaning so sexual it fell out of common use.) It describes the state of being present that the Occupy movement’s General Assemblies and tent camps have lived out, a space in which—as Mohamed Bouazizi might have dreamed it—the disappeared can reappear with dignity.
Occupy has also created a space in which people of all kinds can coexist, from the homeless to the tenured, from the inner city to the agrarian. Coexisting in public with likeminded strangers and acquaintances is one of the great foundations and experiences of democracy, which is why dictatorships ban gatherings and groups—and why our First Amendment guarantee of the right of the people peaceably to assemble is being tested more strongly today than in any recent moment in American history. Nearly every Occupy has at its center regular meetings of a General Assembly. These are experiments in direct democracy that have been messy, exasperating and miraculous: arenas in which everyone is invited to be heard, to have a voice, to be a member, to shape the future. Occupy is first of all a conversation among ourselves.
To occupy also means to show up, to be present—a radically unplugged experience for a digital generation. Today, the term is being applied to any place where one plans to be present, geographically or metaphorically: Occupy Wall Street, occupy the food system, occupy your heart. The ad hoc invention of the people’s mic by the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, which requires everyone to listen, repeat and amplify what’s being said, has only strengthened this sense of presence. You can’t text or half-listen if your task is to repeat everything, so that everyone hears and understands. You become the keeper of your brother’s or sister’s voice as you repeat their words.
It’s a triumph of the here and now—and it’s everywhere: the Regents of the University of California are mic-checked, politicians are mic-checked, the Durban Climate Conference in South Africa had occupiers and mic-check moments. Activism had long been in dire need of new modes of doing things, and this year it got them.
A Mouthful of Truth
Before the Occupy movement arrived on the scene, political dialogue and media chatter in this country seemed to be arriving from a warped parallel universe. Tiny government expenditures were denounced, while the vortex sucking our economy dry was rarely addressed; hard-working immigrants were portrayed as deadbeats; people who did nothing were anointed as “job creators”; the trashed economy and massive suffering were overlooked, while politicians jousted over (and pundits pontificated about) the deficit; class war was only called class war when someone other than the ruling class waged it. It’s as though we were trying to navigate Las Vegas with a tattered map of medieval Byzantium—via, that is, a broken language in which everything and everyone got lost.
Then Occupy arrived and, as if swept by some strange pandemic, a contagious virus of truth-telling, everyone was suddenly obliged to call things by their real names and talk about actual problems. The blather about the deficit was replaced by acknowledgments of grotesque economic inequality. Greed was called greed, and once it had its true name, it became intolerable, as had racism when the civil rights movement named it and made it evident to those who weren’t suffering from it directly. The vast scale of suffering around student debt and tuition hikes, foreclosures, unemployment, wage stagnation, medical costs and the other afflictions of the normal American suddenly moved to the top of the news, and once exposed to the light, these, too, became intolerable.
If the solutions to the nightmares being named are neither near nor easy, naming things, describing reality with some accuracy, is at least a crucial first step. Informing ourselves as citizens is another. Aspects of our not-quite-democracy that were once almost invisible are now on the table for discussion—and for opposition, notably corporate personhood, the legal status that gives corporations the rights, but not the obligations and vulnerabilities, of citizens. (One oft-repeated Occupier sign says, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas puts one to death.”)
The Los Angeles City Council passed a measure calling for an end to corporate personhood, the first big city to join the Move to Amend campaign against corporate personhood and against the 2009 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that gave corporations unlimited ability to insert their cash in our political campaigns. Occupy actions across the country are planned for January 20, the second anniversary of Citizens United. Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s been speaking the truth alone for a long time, introduced a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United and limit corporate power in the Senate, while Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced a similar measure in the House.
Only a few years ago, hardly anyone knew what corporate personhood was. Now, signs denouncing it are common. Similarly, at Occupy events, people make it clear that they know about the New Deal–era financial reform measure known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which was partially repealed in 1999, removing the wall between commercial and investment banks; that they know about the proposed financial transfer tax, nicknamed the Robin Hood Tax, that would raise billions with a tiny levy on every financial transaction; that they understand many of the means by which the 1 percent were enriched and the rest of us robbed.
This represents a striking learning curve. A new language of truth, debate about what actually matters, an informed citizenry: that’s no small thing. But we need more.
We Are the 99.999 percent
I was myself so caught up in the Occupy movement that I stopped paying my usual attention to the war over the climate—until I was brought up short by the catastrophic failure of the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. There, earlier this month, the most powerful and carbon-polluting countries managed to avoid taking any timely and substantial measures to keep the climate from heating up and the Earth from slipping into unstoppable chaotic change.
It’s our nature to be more compelled by immediate human suffering than by remote systemic problems. Only this problem isn’t anywhere near as remote as many Americans imagine. It’s already creating human suffering on a large scale and will create far more. Many of the food crises of the past decade are tied to climate change, and in Africa thousands are dying of climate-related chaos. The floods, fires, storms and heat waves of the past few years are climate change coming to call earlier than expected in the United States.
In the most immediate sense, Occupy may have weakened the climate movement by focusing many of us on the urgent suffering of our brothers, our neighbors, our democracy. In the end, however, it could strengthen that movement with its new tactics, alliances, spirit and language of truth. After all, why have we been unable to make the major changes required to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? The answer is a word suddenly in wide circulation: greed. Responding adequately to this crisis would benefit every living thing. When it comes to climate change, after all, we are the 99.999 percent.
But the international .001 percent who profit immeasurably from the carbon economy—the oil and coal tycoons and industrialists and the politicians whose strings they pull—are against this change. For decades, they’ve managed to propagandize many Americans, in and out of government, into climate denial, spreading lies about the science and economics of climate change, and undermining any possible legislation and international negotiations to ameliorate it. And if you think the eviction of elderly homeowners is brutal, think of it as a tiny foreshadowing of the displacement and disappearance of people, communities, nations, species, habitats. Climate change threatens to foreclose on all of us.
The groups working on climate change now, notably 350.org and Tar Sands Action, have done astonishing things already. Most recently, with the help of native Canadians, local activists and alternative media, they very nearly managed to kill the single scariest and biggest North American threat to the climate: the tar sands pipeline that would go from Canada to Texas. It’s been a remarkable show of organizing power and popular will. Occupy the Climate may need to come next.
Maybe Occupy Wall Street and its thousands of spin-offs have built the foundation for it. But perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions—and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters. But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.
Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.
In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr. used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We—and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before—have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.