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You Can’t Judge A Revolution By Its Cover

"Occupy Wall Street September 28 2011" by shankbone on flickr

"Occupy Wall Street September 28 2011" by shankbone on flickr

I spent some time with the folks currently occupying Zuccotti Park (now Liberty Park) in lower Manhattan over the last 2 days. I talked to a few dozen people there, some of whom traveled cross country at the drop of a hat to participate in the first organic protest movement since Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. Much has been made about the lack of media coverage of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), but the people involved in the protest don’t really care.

What the rest of the country has been seeing in 2 dimensions on television or reading about from an extremely snarky print media can’t possibly transmit the level of intelligence, energy, commitment and humanity being produced by this assembly. This is an amazingly diverse crowd, I had a long talk with an economist from Bakersfield California, a blogger from Philadelphia, a teacher from Albany, as well as a collection of old school radicals who’ve been waiting almost 40 years for something like this to reappear.

The first thing you notice is just how incredibly nice everyone is. From the outside, one might think this is just a bunch of scraggly slackers who have found a new venue for their drum circles, dancing, guitar playing, and some who may just be there for the free food and the general hang. But walking around the park the political dimension is infectious.  At any given moment, in any corner or on any bench, a spontaneous dialogue will break out about the current state of affairs we find ourselves in as Americans and citizens of the planet.

Although this scene is highly reminiscent of Washington Square Park, Berkeley, or any college campus in the 60’s, this is no gathering of hippies. The hippies of yore did have a political dimension, they had Viet Nam to protest, civil rights to secure, and a blossoming environmental movement to nurture. But  the ‘real’ hippies’ politics devolved into the freedom to get high, get laid, and generally envelop themselves in the counter-culture they were creating.

The people of OWS are drug-free and grounded. Most of the ones I spoke with had full time jobs or were in school. Some were even intensely self-aware of the time they had been wasting playing video games and watching MTV and know they are now paying the price for that passivity.

The general complaint I had while watching this protest both on television and through their own live video stream was that A) there was no leadership, B) there was no organization or strategy and C) there were no specific demands being made on which a ‘legitimate’ protest movement could build its foundation. Judging from what I’ve read and heard, both inside and outside the protest, I wasn’t alone in sensing that without all of those seeming prerequisites, the protest would be doomed to irrelevancy in good time.

I spoke about these sentiments to everyone I engaged with, and that’s where I learned what can only be gleaned by direct by direct conversation with any of these folks. What we’re seeing here is almost totally unique, a magnetic sense of unity amongst disparate people from many different places and eras, finally feeling like they got permission to give voice to the burning frustration of living in a country that has lost its moral compass and given itself over to commerce, profit, and convenience. These people have had it. And they’ve finally gone active.

I think we live in a time where, due to the endless demand for immediate gratification, we’ve lost our ability to manage expectations. This is clearly evident on the part of the left, who chose to forgo political reality by projecting all of their hopes and desires onto a presidential candidate, and who are only now waking up to the fact that ANY president becomes part of the machinery.

Our loss of patience also forces us to expect this protest movement to perform radical or even nonsensical acts just to prove itself worthy of fitting into the niche definition of what we expect a protest to look and sound like. Well, I’ll tell you right now, the people in this movement have very little concern about how they’re being perceived by anyone; they’re operating on their own terms and timetable.

The lack of ‘leadership’ is actually an expression of pure democracy, where every voice can and will be heard. The lack of ‘organization’ is due to the fact that there are no sponsors of this movement, corporate or otherwise, but the level of intellect and co-operation has and will continue to produce direct action. And as far as specific demands, well these people just want things to be better, not in a spoiled child type of complaint, but in a genuine belief that things CAN be better.

As it stands right now, the protesters are still getting to know one another, feeling each other out in order to gauge each other’s urgency or limitations. Eventually I imagine some form of leadership will emerge, if only to further guide the direction and prevent any kind of infighting.

When the union protests took place in Wisconsin this past winter, they were organized by national groups that had the funding, manpower, and experience to get noticed on a national level. They may have not achieved their goals, but they gave us all permission to question authority again.

During the Arab Spring, we witnessed uprisings by populations that refused to continue living under authoritarian rule.  Those demonstrations were not only successful, but they also gave us that same permission to let loose.

Occupy Wall Street may not be anyone’s version of Tahrir Square; I’m not sure any of the protesters are ready to lay down their lives for this movement.  But trust me, they’re in it for the long haul and they speak for all of us.

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