Occupy Together: the People’s Mic

"Let the tension between reality and possibility break [our] collective heart open to justice, truth, and love."    - Parker Palmer

Last summer, I took a Quakers and Social Class workshop from George Lakey at the Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering.  We talked about our own experiences of social class.  He also had the participants face and reflect on the inequities of social class in US society, and envision alternatives and how they might come about. George shared his knowledge of Norway and their decision to throw the robber barons out and create a just democratic society as a model.

When Norway faced an economic crisis in the early 1990s caused by imprudent speculation by banks, the political leadership took control of two of the four largest banks, senior management was fired, and shareholders of insolvent institutions received nothing. Eventually, the affected banks were nursed back to health.  Because of these measures, Norway was less affected by the 2008 economic crisis than most other countries. "Norway's nationalization of major banks that did wrong sent a clear message to remaining management to clean up their act."  George talked about the common understanding in Norway that a healthy, well-educated populace who isn't overworked and a government that puts a priority on caring for children ends up with a very productive work force.  To Norwegians, fairness and justice make good economic sense for the whole country. 

What would make sense for the United States?  Three months after the FGC Gathering, we have the Occupy Together movement.

I've spent time at the Occupy Philadelphia site on the west side of the historic City Hall.  In just two days, it grew from 200 people standing around, eager, hopeful, to an organized and energized village with nearly 100 tents. There's a library, a media and technology center, a children's play area, makeshift homes for the homeless, committees actively engaged in meetings, and a full schedule of training, nonviolent actions, and events—and break-dancing!

Signs proclaim people's inward sense of their connection to the movement.  The one I liked the most was, "We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness."  The courageous people involved in this movement aren't only speaking, marching, protesting.  They are demonstrating and living the alternative they would like to see, they are 'being the change.'  They are showing what it might mean to live love. 

On a recent visit to an Occupy Philadelphia General Assembly, the first person to speak was a man who spontaneously jumped on the stage and sang 'The Greatest Love of All' to us. It had been raining, so the organizers couldn't use their PA system.  Instead, they used an Occupy Wall Street site invention: the People's Mic.  The person speaking uses short phrases and the people assembled repeat what was said so all can hear. 

What deep listening this engendered!  People didn't just sit back quietly.  Rather they were vital and alert, receiving the message by saying it oneself to transmit it. There were a few announcements of actions planned for the day, committee meetings and needs. One person read a letter from Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter asking for regular meetings with his administration, requesting that some things be moved in the park, and he affirmed the commitment of his office and the city to “serve as a beacon of the First Amendment.”

One way Friends have bolstered Occupy Philadelphia is to offer the hospitality and some of facilities at Friends Center, located just two blocks from the encampment.  This place of refuge and respite is welcome, as are the lucious smells coming from the kitchen where meals for some 1,500 people are prepared each day.  A fascinating and complex, fair consensus-building process decided that when the rain is mighty, General Assemblies will take place in the meetinghouse. 

I know many in the media and perhaps people you know have complained that there isn't a concise set of demands coming from the protesters and that they lack focus. But a concise set of demands would truncate what they are doing and creating.  This isn't a one position, one issue movement.  Rather it is about the deep trouble our society is in and how to transform “the system.”

The root of the trouble, of course, is economic, but the tendrils of that trouble extend to our abuse of the environment, the mass incarceration of millions of people of color, the upsurge of private prisons, the war against the labor movement, the defunding of public education and other crucial services, the lack of access to healthcare, structural racism and xenophobia, and the huge military industrial complex that has profited mightily from  two wars for ten years. The Occupy movement is opening the space between what is and what is possible, and the participants aren't interested in settling for pat solutions. They are willing to sit in the tension between reality and possibility as they uncover the complexity of the problems and explore deep solutions. They are willing to struggle through the messiness of real democracy to birth something new. They are committed to nonviolence, to radical hospitality and welcome, and to work on what societal change might look like, who we could become as a people, as a people hungry for connection and true community. 

I’ve been moved by the times I’ve been able to visit the Occupy site. I think you will be, too, if you have the opportunity to visit an Occupy Together encampment.  I hope you can listen, engage in the conversations, attend a General Assembly, participate, and lend your voice and perspective to what they are trying to do.  All around the country, AFSC is working with and supporting Occupy sites, offering trainings, distributing literature (including our “Move the Money” toolkit), and learning from the grass roots organizers.  It’s a privilege to be part of, dare I say, an historic moment. 

In the next few weeks, guest writers (among them Friends and AFSC staff) will share their perspectives on Occupy Together here.  I ‘m also encouraging and accepting submissions to consider for publication so if you, dear reader, would like to share your thoughts, please send your essay to me at friends@afsc.org. I am hoping to provide a prism of multiple perspectives, both resonant and dissonant voices, to assist in illuminating and celebrating Occupy Together. I would love to hear what you have to say! And feel free to comment here and extend the conversation.

A friend recently posted this on Facebook: "There are people so poor that all they have is money."  Let us all remember what makes us truly rich….

In the Light,