#OccupyWallStreet: We Make the Road by Walking

October 25, 2011Jake Olzen

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Editor’s Note: This is the third of a series. You’re encouraged to read parts one and two before continuing.

The liberation theologians, and the base communities that influenced them, often repeated the mantra “we make the road by walking” to reflect a liberation praxis of social analysis, theological reflection, and community action.  The same could be true for #OccupyWallStreet.  When the call from AdBusters went out over the summer, no one could have predicted the kind of response the has taken root.  In terms of the future direction that the various Occupy movements are heading in, there could be equal parts frustration on behalf of the establishment as there is excitement on behalf of the emerging movement.  Society is experiencing a kind of social confusion with the lack of demands coming from General Assemblies.  But that is exactly the point.

The status quo has had no problems telling dissident groups and marginalized peoples to be patient and wait for history to take its course.  Change takes time.  The white liberal establishment grew anxious with the black liberation movement for civil rights.  Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a product of that anxiety.  Women suffragists and feminists have been told to be patient while the Equal Rights Amendment still has not passed.  Human rights activists have been discouraged time and again when met with political stalemates around closing Guantanamo.  “It just isn’t the right political climate” say Congressional aides and Congresspersons.

So, dear friends, at Capitol Hill and in the White House and on Wall Street.  To media moguls at The New York Times, CNN, and even The Daily Show: Be patient.  It isn’t the right time yet for demands.  This is a new paradigm, a new road we are walking.  This occupation may look like those of yesteryear, but it is not.  This is a revolution that is shaping not just policy and what we do, but process and how we do it.  This is the moment that social justice organizations and community groups that have labored late into the evening trying to reach consensus have waited for.  This is the moment that awkward and difficult anti-oppression trainings and nonviolence teach-ins have prepared for.

#OccupyWallStreet is in a liminal space between Empire and the future that is being shaped now.  General Assemblies, working groups, direct action and civil disobedience, awareness of privilege, structures addressing histories of oppression, alternative narratives: this is the normativity of the future.  In the shadow of Empire – in the spaces of Empire like Zuccotti Park and Lasalle and Jackson in Chicago’s Loop – the counter-project to Empire is taking shape in a way that cannot be crushed.  Yes, the occupation is physical, but at its core this revolution is transforming the way people interact, understand, relate, consent, and – most importantly – dissent to power.

The new way of being is formed from where we’ve come and will continue to form as we walk this road of occupation into how we – you and me – occupy our individual bodies, our families, our communities, our neighborhoods and schools and churches, our workplaces and civil institutions.  This is a revolution of the imagination – of what is possible; because the Occupy was successful so can all our other ideas and ideologies that seek to transform concentrated wealth and power into models of shared wealth and power.  It is not socialist, but this revolution is rooted in sharing.  It will take a long time, and that’s okay considering how long we’ve lived in the occupied territories of violence and domination and exploitation – admittedly there are those living an occupied life of poverty and war across the globe much more so that many of us occupying cities across the U.S.  But we too have been victimized by that Empire, even as we’ve been complicit in the execution of global capitalism’s imperial will.  Yet this is our moment for a movement to be neither victim nor executioner.

What does that space look like, between victim and executioner?  One example of it looks like a well-run General Assembly.  It means that some of us will have to speak up and share our stories and ideas more than we are used to.  It means that some of us will have to shut up and listen more than we are used to.  It means withholding judgment on what kind of reality #OccupyWallStreet and company are forming and taking the risk to participate and contribute to that reality.  And it means trusting in not knowing all the answers all the time, but being uncomfortably comfortable with trusting group wisdom and community process.  All of this can be learned, perfected, and then perfected some more.  Healthy, functioning communities – whether they be religious orders, workplace democracies, intentional communities, families, affinity groups, unions, whatever – all share at least one thing in common: you get out what you put into it.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, wrote a cosmological prayer reflecting the evolutionary direction of the universe toward new life.  He writes:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages,

We are impatient of being on the way to do something
unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his (sic) hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Detractors will surely say that all of this is well-intentioned, lofty idealism and unpractical spirituality that doesn’t pay the rent, keep the heat on, pay the medical bills or get food onto the table and into our bellies.  Ignore them – or better yet, invite them in to share their stories for something new and unknown.  We have each other and, as we network and build community and share our lives, and wealth and power that we do have – even if it is only a fraction of the amount of the power elite – we will be able to take care of each other.  It’s happening already in Detroit with folks reclaiming urban blight turning food deserts into farm fields.  It’s happening with the worker-owned cooperatives producing renewable energy in Ohio.  The past and present is replete with innumerable examples of people-powered action to resist injustice but, and maybe even more importantly, cooperatively work for a better future.  Peter Maurin called it the Green Revolution.  Gandhi called it the Constructive that Program.

Only time will tell what #OccupyWallStreet yields in terms of concrete social and political change.  But, and others have noted this, #OccupyWallStreet (and all the liberation/occupation movements of 2011) have already changed the global landscape.  It is a bold claim, but the most important thing about #OccupyWallStreet is its Spirit.  This is what will reinvigorate us for the struggle for the common good rather than the private interests of a few.  That struggle will take many shapes and forms in the years ahead – and that is the way we should be viewing this struggle for a new society in the shell of the old.  It may be the revoking of corporate personhood and tax reform.  It may be student debt relief, electoral reform, or the end of agricultural subsidies.  It may be the radical restructuring of budget priorities and the cutting of Defense and Department of Homeland Security spending (or *gasp* existence) in favor of climate security and local energy production.  It may be the abolishment of the Pentagon, the death penalty or the prison-industrial-complex.  It may be a new Constitution.  Or federated communities organized along bioregional interests.  Who knows.  The possibilities are only limited by our imagination, our open to experience mystery, and the courage to risk trying new things, meeting new people, and engaging in new ideas.  #OccupyWallStreet is an experiment in direct democracy and people power that does not have to stop once demands are made and some of them are met.  Rather, what #OccupyWallStreet represents is the kind of community we can have in place of Empire.

All of this emphasis on newness, process, and sharing may not seem to matter much – considering the financial and ecological descent into chaos and the fierce urgency to do something now – but the unique realities that are threatening justice, liberty, and equity for all cannot be addressed by the dominant paradigm of global capitalism.  As Jesus teaches in Matthew 5: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’”  For now, #OccupyWallStreet’s “No” to Empire is enough.  Let the “Yeses” come later as the road we are walking to Emmaus and the Kin-dom of God becomes more clear.

  • Gonçalves

    Very good food for thought. Kudos!

  • Greg W

    Hey All:

    Awesome article and also awesome caption picture. Who shot and/or photoshoped that? I kind of want to give them props.

  • ric hudgens

    Since we don’t have forums any more I thought this was important enough to append it here. David Graeber has just posted a reply to the controversial piece earlier this week from Chris Hedges. Hedges wrote in criticism of “black bloc” tactics and painted with a very broad brush, calling it a “cancer” on the OWS movement. Graeber’s response is better informed and Hedges should feel obligated to respond.

    The original article is here: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_cancer_of_occupy_20120206/. Graeber’s response was originally posted on nplusone (http://nplusonemag.com/concerning-the-violent-peace-police) but that site is not loading well this afternoon so you might also look here: http://www.revolutionbythebook.akpress.org/concerning-the-violent-peace-police-an-open-letter-to-chris-hedges/

    • Andylewis

      Layla Abdel Rahim and Michael Franklin talked about Hedges article on Anarchy Radio a few nights ago.

  • Andylewis

    Ridding the Cancer from Super Bowl Half Time Shows by Chris “The Times” Hedges

    I’m a long time supporter of super bowl half time shows but recent events such as MIA’s middle finger have given a black eye to this otherwise stalwart platform for World Peace. MIA’s middle finger has no place in the super bowl half time show. The truth is, MIA is inspired by notorious wardrobe malfunctionista Janet Jackson. Neither one of these nihilistic displays shows any thought of tactical significance and they certainly have nothing to do with world peace! Athority and Organization forever!!!!

    Response by David “Harvard” Graber

    As a founder of the super bowl half time show and an occasional middle finger user I take issue with your characterization the middle finger as a nihilistic symbol which lacks tactical significance. The truth is the middle finger can be displayed in many ways in many situations. Obviously as a founder and proponent of the super bowl halftime show I share your concern for bringing about world peace, but I fail to see how your analogy of the middle finger as a cancerous growth on the Super bowl half time show is working to perpetuate World Peace. And as for Janet Jackson she’s a raving lunatic who’s philosophy of wardrobe malfunction has nothing to do with World Peace. The middle finger on the other hand shows potential as a way to push buttons for World Peace. The most troubling thing about your article is that it could perpetuate violence against middle finger users. There’s no place for violence in World Peace or the super bowl half time show. While I agree we need a tactically sufficient amount of authoritarianism and organizational structure we should always remember that the super bowl half time show takes place on a big stage and there’s enough room for everyone provided they adhere to the principles of world peace, democracy and the Clint Eastwood commercial.

  • Andylewis

    Correction, The response is by David “Yaley” Graber

  • Andylewis

    Here’s an interview with Hedges where he points to anarcho-primitivists, anarchy radio and Zerzan as bad influences that undermine the tactical influence of peaceful protests.

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