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by Alyssa Goldstein
There are plenty of places on the web where you can read about the Occupy Wall Street movement, its demands, and the massive economic injustice that leads to it. You can read about corporate personhood, police brutality, and all of the tensions and problems within the movement. But I would like to consider something different, something less tangible, that I have not yet tried to put into words.
At the beginning of this semester, I truly could not have imagined something like OWS happening here. I still remember the week before it started, when it was just an event invitation on the right-hand side of my Facebook page to which I paid scant attention. A friend of mine went down to the city for the first day of the occupation. “So what’s this Occupy Wall Street thing all about, anyway?” I asked. “What are their demands?”
“We’re going to vote on it when we get there,” he said. I had never heard of such a thing. I’d been to many demonstrations before, of course, starting with the war in Iraq when I was 13. The demands for those always seemed to be decided before then, and you went to the demonstration if you agreed. The demonstrations would last for an afternoon--the organizers would get a permit and we would march down Broadway. We’d repeat the process every year on the anniversary of the war, with fewer and fewer demonstrators each year, until the war simply seemed to be as inevitable as rush hour traffic or summer heatwaves. And capitalism? Forget it. Not even a topic of discussion in this country, much less the subject of mass demonstrations.
I had loved going to the demonstrations and raiding my dad’s button collection beforehand for anti-war pins from the Vietnam era to evoke for myself the glory days of protest and resistance which my generation had sadly missed. My 13-year-old self dreamed about how badass it would be if I got arrested, and after every protest I would wear my buttons and stickers to school the next day to show everyone how awesomely radical I was. However, there was little room for discussion at the anti-Iraq-war demonstrations. There were chants, and there were signs, and most of them were the same month after month. I wished there were some way to express more complicated thoughts, but how would that even be possible in such a large crowd?
I’d never heard the phrase “horizontal democracy” before. The idea of a general assembly at a demonstration was alien to me. Hell, who ever would have thought it was possible to have a library at a demo? When I went to Zucotti Park a few weeks ago, I was thrilled by all the signs that people had made: some were colorful, some witty, and some were quite long and featured personal stories. I had brought my own: a red flag with a stencilled Eugene Debs quote that read: “Where there is a lower class I am in it, where there is a criminal element I am of it, if there is a soul in prison I am not free.” I sat on a ledge and unfurled it. Passerby would stop, take pictures, read and consider it, and even strike up conversation about it. Similar interactions were taking place all over the park. It seemed indicative of how the Occupy movement is structured around discussion and interaction more than the other protest movements I’ve been a part of.
Now, a month and a half into the Occupy movement, things seem different and new, and I have nothing in my short life to compare this to. I haven’t spent as much time down at Wall Street as I would have liked, being stuck up here at Bard most of the time. But in a way, I feel like I’m there even when I’m not. This movement is on the mind, lips and fingertips of me and other Bard students all the time. We have a Facebook group with over 300 members and up to dozens of posts a day, where we share information, look out for one another when some of us get arrested, and debate the issues surrounding the movement. On Wednesday we’re going to hold a vigil and general assembly in solidarity with the Oakland general strike and OccupyOakland, which was the victim of some intense police brutality last week.
The Occupy movement has changed my relationship to space in a weird and difficult to explain way. These marches, general assemblies, and sleep-outs all exist in physical space in their actual locations, of course, but they also exist everywhere in internet-space. We document these actions ourselves and put them out there on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and blogs for all to see and discuss, bypassing the TV pundits who still obliviously complain that they just can’t understand what this movement is all about. The action we are planning at Bard for Wednesday already exists in this internet-space, and the fact that we are out in the middle of the woods need not be a barrier for our participation.
I really felt it when I went to Occupy Times Square two weeks ago. It was the first time in my life that I can remember actually being excited to enter Times Square, whose crowds of sweaty tourists I usually go out of my way to avoid. My friends and I stumbled out of subway station. The sky was dark, but the street was flooded with light from the flashing advertisements above us. There were crowds of people and police officers around, but it was strangely silent. Where are all the occupiers? I wondered. All the people here were staring up at a giant screen showing the NBC news. Scenes of protest from around the world flashed before us. Times Square from above appeared on the screen, as packed as on New Years’ eve. The crowd around us cheered. The camera cut back to the newscaster in her studio. “We won’t be able to tell the true meaning of these protests until after the next election,” she said. (Has ever the point been missed so completely?) We heard a more distant cheer reverberate off the buildings from further off in the square. We rounded the corner onto 43rd street and joined the crowd that stretched for blocks, full of people singing and shouting and drumming and scrawling signs on the back of pizza boxes and screaming out one another’s words on the People’s Mic. (In the middle of it all, a woman stood yelling, “Does anyone know how to get to the Disney store?!”) Giant white-toothed faces stared down from the billboards and the advertisements above still flashed away, but they were ignored. People were paying attention to one another instead.
Two months ago, I did not believe that I would ever really feel such identification with any movement ever again. After all, I’d gone through a process of disillusionment with Socialist Zionism and my old youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, which I had once felt a part of so strongly. There are problematic aspects to any movement, and it was best not to become too wholeheartedly absorbed or carried away. And of course, Occupy Wall Street has some huge problems with racism and sexism, and I’ve gotten into some intense arguments over them. But at the same time, I feel this wild hope that’s not related to the likelihood of achieving some end goal, but instead is related to us embarking on this process together.
Before one of my classes this afternoon, my fellow students and I were talking about the Oakland general strike and our planned solidarity action. “If this goes off, it will be the first general strike since 1946,” one of my classmates said. His eyes lit up. “It’s so amazing to be a college student at this time. I can’t believe it.” It’s amazing to be an American at this time, to be politically active at this time, to be alive at this time. I can scarcely believe it myself.