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Pre-Occupied This Spring

Occupy seems dead. Unless the police screw up again and bash some student heads in one of the parks, won't it likely stay dead?  After all, why would anyone think that a bunch of random people (many of whom have no place else to go) sleeping in a park; trying to "occupy" a public space; creating a personal camping ground replete with a big mess, self-invited derelicts, and epithets about "pigs" is going to make any kind of a realpolitik difference?

At first, Occupy seemed almost like a parody of 60's and 70's style student activism of the kind that put racism on the run and forced the military machine out of Vietnam.  I remember when the University of Minnesota (my alma mater of 50,000 students) finally joined the UW at Madison and closed down for the Spring Quarter in 1970.  Every other big ten campus joined them within days, and by the end of the week, all the state universities in the nation closed down, followed by the Ivy League schools, (yes, even Harvard). In short order, every college and university in the nation was on strike — save perhaps for Oral Roberts University — for the balance of the Spring.

The war ended soon after.

I also recall how hopeless a lot of the campus demonstrations seemed before the 1970 national student strike picked up steam, or as we say now, went viral! Students occupied one square on the campus at a time, and demonstrated in front of their administration buildings all over America for over a year to protest the complicity between the university system and the war machine.  They seemed pathetic too at times, even by SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) insiders like myself.

When one considers the insidious nature of the problems we face as a nation today, it hardly seems that street action is up to the task: straight up corruption at all levels of government, extreme ecological irresponsibility, financial exploitation of everyday citizens, consolidation of corporate power, etc etc.  The regulations that kept local banks and the savings of hard working Americans safe for years from the Wall Street players and greedy ponzi investment schemes were trashed and still not restored. We are hurling toward climate disaster and no major government on Earth has the courage or ability to stop it.  We are trapped in a constant state of undeclared war to protect our ever spiraling energy consumption, and an unbelievable percentage of people all over the world are starving.

How will this turn around?  Where are the signs that we are making any progress solving these problems?  Even with Barack Obama in the White House, we seem to fall deeper into crisis on every front. More and more Americans, and people all around the globe suffer as a small number continue to profit from this these interlocking calamities.

The media keeps us busy with the Kardashians, and commentaries that scoff at citizen efforts like Occupy Wall Street, leaving us numbed and cynical.  Hopelessness about the future is spreading like a disease among our young people an increasing number of which are prescribed psychotropic drugs just to get through the day.

Rich diversions from the grim reality are compelling and plentiful in New York City. Countercultural writer and activist Daniel Pinchbeck, Chloe Cockburn, and a few friends, organized what has been called Awareness Experiments, periodic gatherings of young, successful, creative downtown hipsters from the media, fashion, and entertainment worlds in the chic Bowery Hotel.  In their words, the purpose was to have "Occupy-inspired public conversations," and "inspire our community to take specific paths to action."  The events have offered speakers, music, space for conversation, and the opportunity to contribute creative ideas to this "incredible moment in our history."

The hybrid "community" that Pinchbeck spoke of was actually in formation at these events. Occupiers who were nursing fresh wounds from encounters with out-of-control police in the streets were on hand to share their experience. But what these gatherings made clear is that fundamental resistance to the status quo is not just a exercise of the disadvantaged and powerless. To see celebrities like Sean Lennon, Zoe Kravitz, Penn Badgley, Sean Parker, and others engaged in substantive discussions about how we can make a difference in our lifetimes was itself a huge stimulus.

I began to see the Occupy phenomena is a different light.  Occupy was not a takeover of a park, or a march over the Brooklyn Bridge — these were just strategies. Occupy is a recognition that we, as citizens of America and the world, hold the responsibility to take action and forge a better future for ourselves and our children. Occupy means it is up to us — we are the source of the enthusiasm, the creative energy, and the determination to solve the critical problems we face. We need to fully occupy ourselves.

I thought back to what Obama reminded us of when he was running, and then shortly after his victory: that his power came from us, that he needs us activated in order to keep his promises, and change policies. Considering the entrenched opposition to change within the Washington establishment, Obama needs to point out the window to the thousands of citizens making themselves heard in order to break new policy ground. His recent decision on the XL pipeline is a great example: Obama faced, and still faces tremendous pressure from powerful interests to keep investing in the oil economy, but when 20,000 Americans formed a human ring around the White House he had the platform to stand up to big oil and say "no."

Indeed, citizen occupy movements throughout our history has been the driver of all the positive political and social change we have ever known, whether it was ending racism, stoping wars, creating unions, or responding to the environmental crisis.

Occupy, in a figurative sense, has left Zuccotti Park. There are occupiers in every city in America, and it has spread to every major city on Earth. People everywhere are occupying their power as citizens, and as free people taking responsibility for their lives and for directing their governments to address their needs.  

I passed through Union Square today and bought a black button with OCCUPY in white lettering and pinned it to my jacket.  It's interesting to read the faces passing me in the street as they focus on it. I'm talking to friends about Occupy. I'm supporting the May 1 General Strike. I see it as Occupy's second general alarm: Life support systems are spiraling downward, and it's up to us to stop it. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that given the challenges we face, complacency and business as usual is a form of self-destruction.  The strike gives us a chance to flex our collective muscle and demonstrate the efficacy of people power — it is a clarion call, and itself a tribute to democracy.





















Teaser image by Sunset Parkerpix, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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