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I would have liked to know what the drummer hoped and what she expected. We’ll never know why she decided to take a drum to the central markets of Paris on October 5, 1789, and why, that day, the tinder was so ready to catch fire and a drumbeat was one of the sparks.
To the beat of that drum, the working women of the marketplace marched all the way to the Palace of Versailles, a dozen miles away, occupied the seat of French royal power, forced the king back to Paris and got the French Revolution rolling. Far more than with the storming of the Bastille almost three months earlier, it was then that the revolution was really launched—though both were mysterious moments when citizens felt impelled to act and acted together, becoming in the process that mystical body, civil society, the colossus who writes history with her feet and crumples governments with her bare hands.
She strode out of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City during which parts of the central city collapsed, and so did the credibility and power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI that had ruled Mexico for 70 years. She woke up almost three years ago in North Africa, in what was called the Arab Spring, and became a succession of revolutions and revolts still unfolding across the region.
Such transformative moments have happened in many times and many places—sometimes as celebratory revolution, sometimes as terrible calamity, sometimes as both, and they are sometimes reenacted as festivals and carnivals. In these moments, the old order is shattered, governments and elites tremble, and in that rupture civil society is born—or reborn.
In the new space that appears, however briefly, the old rules no longer apply. New rules may be written or a counterrevolution may be launched to take back the city or the society, but the moment that counts, the moment never to forget, is the one where civil society is its own rule, taking care of the needy, discussing what is necessary and desirable, improvising the terms of an ideal society for a day, a month, the ten-week duration of the Paris Commune of 1871, or the several weeks’ encampment and several-month aftermath of Occupy Oakland, proudly proclaimed on banners as the Oakland Commune.
Weighing the Meaning
Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear is a sign of their recognition that real power doesn’t only lie with them. (Sometimes your enemies know what your friends can’t believe.) That’s why the New York Police Department maintained a massive presence at Occupy Wall Street’s encampment and spent millions of dollars on punishing the participants (and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more, in police brutality payouts for all the clubbing and pepper-gassing of unarmed idealists, as well as $47,000 for the destruction of the OWS library, because in situations like these a library is a threat, too).
Those who dismiss these moments because of their flaws need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have, historically, emerged because of them, even if not always directly or in the most obvious or recognizable ways. Change is rarely as simple as dominos. Sometimes, it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly turn out to be flowers that emerge from plants with deep roots in the past or sometimes from long-dormant seeds.