What I Learned from Occupy Wall Street
I’ll never forget the moment I got hooked on Occupy.
It was the evening of September 27, my third day hanging out at Zuccotti Park, and one of the first days the media started to pay attention to the fledgling movement. At the time, I was the millennial organizer for Rebuild the Dream, a group Van Jones founded to ignite a grassroots, Tea Party-style uprising against austerity. As a professional organizer, I was skeptical that a small group of scraggly kids in a park were capable of producing any real change.
That evening, Cornel West spoke at the general assembly. “We will send a message: this is the US Fall, responding to the Arab Spring,” he said. Until that point, I didn’t believe this country was capable of a movement like those that rocked the Arab world and later spread to Europe.
Professor West pushed us to imagine that what was necessary was also possible, “We will move step by step to what [Martin Luther King] called a revolution of true values. Don't be afraid to say the word ‘revolution.’ We want a transfer of power from the oligarchs to ordinary citizens.”
Just a few days later, Occupy started spreading like wildfire. I remember sitting with new friends in the media center, feverishly trying to keep track of new occupations as reports flooded in. That lasted a few short hours. We gave up when it became clear we couldn’t keep tabs on the thousands of sites popping up around the country and the world. To build on the momentum, we called for a national day of action on October 15 in solidarity with the M15 Indignados movement in Spain. Two short weeks after we put out the call, more than 30,000 people filled Times Square. The giant ABC News ticker in the middle of the square blared, “Occupy Wall Street Movement Goes World Wide.” ABC got the headline backwards, but that didn’t make it any less exciting.
Occupy captured my imagination—and for a moment the imagination of the entire world—because it refused to negotiate with a political system that had broken faith with ordinary citizens. Instead of working for change from within that broken system, Occupy showed that it is possible to fight without negotiating with those in power. A movement that vibrant could only have come from revolutionaries inspired by the Arab Spring, who were willing to propose the creation of a new moral order that would replace the corrupt nexus of wealth and power.
The connection between Occupy and international revolutionary movements is not merely rhetorical. Occupy borrowed organizing strategies directly from the Arab Spring and was heavily influenced by organizers with direct experience from international revolutionary movements. Like those movements, Occupy started when a small group of citizens took it upon themselves to create a democratic space in direct opposition to the ruling few.
Occupy made clear that transferring power from the 1% to the 99% is essential to the health of our society. We live in an era of interlocking crises: ecological, economic, political and civic. These crises have expressions in law—they are the sum total of many bad policy decisions made over several decades, rooted in neoliberalism and racism. But more importantly, these crises reflect fundamental imbalances in power that make democratic self-governance a faint possibility. Our collective decisions don’t determine society’s values; the market sets our values.
In the US most people don’t believe our government reflects the will or the needs of the majority. Most of us don’t belong to communal institutions or have a way to participate in the decisions that actually shape our lives. The owners of companies rarely work in the same place as their workers, and our government is just another bauble for the private collections of the extremely wealthy. And yet, many of us unthinkingly refer to our country as a democracy, as if the occasional opportunity to change those nominally in power means we are a self-governing people.
Obviously, the United States is not an autocratic regime, and we have the capacity to change laws to more accurately reflect the will of the people. Unfortunately, we can’t simply write better rules and expect the people in charge will follow them. The powerful don’t abide by our rules no matter how they are written; they rewrite our rules so they have more power. You hardly have to be an anarchist to believe we must act now to change the way we write the rules of our society.
In April, I was blessed with an opportunity to travel to Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, for a series of meetings with Tunisian revolutionaries. As an American, being in Tunisia felt Tocqueville-esque: we were learning what it took to make a society more democratic. We learned from the organizers of the 2008 Gafsa miners strike that revolution doesn’t start with trying to overthrow the government. We learned from people building a civil society from scratch that the revolutionary process does not end with the transfer of power.
Above all, we learned that our movements are connected, and democratic revolutions are possible. The people who started the Tunisian revolution were extraordinary, in the same way the people who started Occupy Wall Street were extraordinary. They each believed in the revolutionary concept that ordinary citizens should be in control of society and took up the mantle of moral leadership to make it happen.
Whether or not you are willing to living in a park to fight for change; whether you consider yourself a liberal or a radical, an anarchist, a socialist, a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent; whether you are rich or poor, black or white, young or old—help build a democratic revolution in America. Democracy isn’t something you can inherit—it’s something you have to practice.