I dropped in on the Occupy Chicago demonstrators on Tuesday to check on their morale after spending mostof my Saturday with them last weekend. As the occupation of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park begins to enter its third week, the small but spirited occupation of the corner of Jackson and LaSalle, mere feet in front of the doors to the federal reserve, enters its second. Most of the people I found in front of the Fed were new, showing up in solidarity after hearing about the movement on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook or what little major media coverage has trickled out. The newer occupiers blended perfectly well with the ones who had been taking part since Friday morning, providing a much needed energy boost to a rain soaked and weary core in need of a good night’s sleep and a fully charged cell phone.
Despite five days of rain from Chicago’s skies, a few slightly tense situations with police on Monday, and a tepid, if not scolding, response from most media – the general spirits of those participating here in the occupy movement remain high.
One of the main criticisms of the occupy movement is that their list of demands is too nebulous, that the reason why autumn in America won’t gain momentum like the Arab spring is that, as Lauren Ellis of Mother Jones put it, “There’s something there for everyone, but no one clear message that can carry a movement forward.” But the demands of demonstrators everywhere – from New York to Chicago, Boston to San Fransisco carry a core commonality – American politics as usual are so entrenched with big business, the needs of its people have fallen by the wayside and merely stepping into a ballot box once every few years hasn’t affected much change. As the New York Times put it, the consensus that we’re living at the end of history, that “liberal economics combined with democratic institutions represented the only path forward…has been shaken if not broken by a seemingly endless succession of crises.”
The occupy movement is giving people something more to believe in than traditional politics or even traditional methods of social change. It’s giving people a belief in themselves. What I’ve seen on the streets of Chicago is a group of smart if frustrated, but definitely dedicated individuals yearning to find better solutions to an interconnected patchwork of problems so large they seem insurmountable. Simply signing petitions or getting out the vote is no longer enough, because those votes go to career politicians many of whom sit deep in the back pockets of corporate conglomerates that are literally drafting legislation. As Glenn Greenwald from Salon pointed out, “Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions — is destroying financial security for everyone else?”
Someone very close to me pointed out in a conversation yesterday that the nature of every campaign – marketing, presidential, protest – is fluidity. That fluidity doesn’t undercut the message because sharpening and adjusting are what make healthy beings function. The occupy movement is still cutting its teeth, staying fluid and trying to remain inclusive to new ideas in a nation whose circular political process has lead it to the kind of apathy where citizens feel more engaged by voting for the next celebrity musician than they do the next person making the very laws that govern them.
While other criticisms center around the usual police brutality shows we see during demonstrations of this nature (curiously absent from the conservative Tea Party protests not too long ago) or that the only people showing up are “the usual suspects,” they’re not exactly relative to the movement itself. It may have started with dreamers, but some of those dreamers are middle class Americans trying to make ends meet, unemployed or underemployed Americans wishing for work in a crumbling economy, and more. All of them – and most of us can recognize the tyranny that everyone knows:
When someone else fights your wars, scrubs your toilets, drives your trucks, stocks your shelves, keeps you safe at night and pours your coffee in the morning, you can’t expect them to simply sit down and shut up when you show more concern for your pocketbook than people. When your sense community is encased by walls and gates and your idea of family ends with the handful of humans who share similar strands of dna, you not only lose the right to make decisions for the people, you never had it in the first place. That’s the first, but not last lesson of Occupy Wall Street, and one that every American should learn.