By Mary Lynn Murphy
Though it is still February in Minnesota, it seems that spring is in the air. Today I can't help thinking back four years, to the chaotic spring when home mortgage loans began to unravel and the American economy imploded.
It was and still is a painful time. My husband and I, and millions of people like us, reacted in horror as jobs disappeared, kids defaulted on college loans, homes went under water, unions were busted, fraudulent bankers got richer, and everyone else got poorer.
Anger was palpable. Cynicism began to turn people inward as the government failed and the media abdicated.
Then gradually, winds of international protest blew in with the Arab Spring. Conversations began to change, even in polite company, even in ordinary spaces. Enough was finally enough. America was ripe for the Occupy movement.
The Back Story
The Occupy back story is interesting, though it is often garbled or misrepresented. In the book This Changes Everything, Andy Kroll tells us that the actual seeds of Occupy in America were sown in a small apartment at 16 Beaver Street in New York City, months before the Zuccotti Park convergence.
A group of 30 artists, activists, writers, students and organizers crammed into a tiny space to talk about changing the world. There were New Yorkers, Egyptians, Spaniards, Japanese and Greeks, many of them veterans of upheaval in their own countries. Their immediate aim was to to address the "shattered economic landscape" in America and abroad.
A pivotal idea emerged. It involved a direct-democracy process that included the concept and the practice of a "people's general assembly," which had worked well in Europe. The essence of the model is a "horizontal" leader-less group of people discussing issues and making decisions by pure consensus. There is no hierarchy. Everyone stands on equal terrain. For weeks the group practiced and refined the model in an assortment of New York venues. It showed promise, which was surprising in a culture so entrenched in hierarchical forms of communication.
Meanwhile, the group connected with an anti-consumerist Vancouver-based magazine named Adbusters. The publication released a widely circulated internet poster depicting a ballerina pirouetting on the back of a charging Wall Street bull, while behind her, riot police emerged from the mist. The poster went global and captured imaginations. Then the planning group and Adbusters hit upon September 17th as a targeted date of action. Adbusters simply posted an announcement reading:
Occupy Wall Street
Sept. 17th. Bring Tent
Sept. 17th. Bring Tent
That's all it took. The first morning, two dozen tech savvy young people materialized in Zuccotti Park, across from Wall Street in New York City. By evening, over 1000 people had gathered. And they stayed. It surprised everyone, including the organizers! As writer Sarah van Gelder reports, "It became a 24 hour a day experiment in egalitarian living."
During daytime hours, the new residents met in their general assemblies referred to "G..As,, deciding everything from food preparation to activist strategies. Sometimes they marched, sang, or "sat in." They were intentionally non-violent. At night, they slept in tents or on the pavement. A community formed, and became a force to be reckoned with. Open to all, the model spread from American cities to towns to colleges to neighborhoods - in conjunction with corresponding "Global Change" initiatives in 951 cities in countries worldwide.
Occupy touched down in Minnesota on a hot, windy, October day. We were ready for it. The Internet lit up with directives about marches and rallies, times and locations. "Bring posters" they said. My husband Mike and I, his sister and her husband, packed our gear and headed for the 46th Street light rail station. "Let's see . . . I've got my sun glasses, vizor, cell phone, water, and a poster reading 'Wall Street Ate My Children's Lunch.'"
We gazed at the city landscape along the route downtown, wondering about the day ahead . . . where it would take us, and why we were going. Mike is a retired business man whose family company enjoyed good relations with its unions. So often I have heard him say, "I am sick of seeing the working man take it on the chin." His sign read, "End Corporate Greed."
Conveniently, the light rail stops directly in front of the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza, now known as "The People's Plaza," the new home of Occupy Minneapolis. (The original name was "Occupy Minnesota," before morphing into "Occupy Minneapolis").
The plaza looked beautiful in the morning sun, shadowed by historic architecture on one side, and glass encased sky scrapers on the other. We were grateful for the shade they cast. The plaza forms a perfect oval around an enormous and thankfully dry fountain. Had it been working on such a windy day, it would have soaked us all!
Tables and booths rimmed the plaza, providing information, (though typical of Occupies, "information" was intentionally sketchy), food and water, a makeshift medical center, overnight gear supplies, a small library, a frenetic media center, and porta potties galore (thank goodness!). I wondered why it takes most of us a year to pull off a conference when these young people could whip this together overnight!
The crowd numbered about 500 early in the day, ranging close to 1000 by evening. The cross section was surprising: Elderly people in sensible shoes, street kids with nose rings, unionists, peace activists, college students, smartly dressed people clutching purses and briefcases, (checking things out before returning to work), hippie girls in tie dye, dancing to bongos (oh, could they dance!), and some muscled up fellows in cut off t-shirts. Folks wore sweat pants and running shoes, work boots and hard hats, sandals and platforms, and a few had bare feet.
On the fringes, two End of Timers held enormous signs - admonishing us to repent for our sins. About half a dozen hyper kinetic young men in red Ron Paul t-shirts tried to engage us in dialogue. Other than that, no political posters or slogans. This crowd was fed up with politics as usual.
I overheard a priest whom I didn't know, conversing with young Occupiers about Catholic social teaching and economic justice. Yoga and Tai Chi could be seen here and there.
Plenty of dignitaries appeared. I saw Keith Ellison, Mayor R.T. Rybak, John Marty, and, wouldn't you know, Jesse Ventura, who wished to be appointed spokesperson for Occupy! (There are no spokespersons.) The place was awash with media, news helicopters, and a few bull horns. Loads of cell phones and laptops poised at the ready. Harmonic guitar chords strummed in the background. Spontaneous "teach ins" popped up intermittently, people educating people.
News folks attempted to interview various Occupiers who refused to be named, or gave names like "Zeitgeist" or "Anonymous." Rebels must be careful.
The plaza was crawling with police - on segues and horseback, in cars, on the streets, and even on rooftops!? It was predictable overkill of course, but we managed.
Loud speakers were prohibited, so the "People's Mic" system was in full effect. This means that a speaker shouts out a statement, and the crowd shouts it back - so all can hear. A tough way to do business (exhausting!) but powerful.
The most memorable moment was AIM (American Indian Movement) leader Clyde Bellecourt's evocative tribute to his people, followed by drumming rituals performed by his grandchildren. The air electrified when en masse (by people's mic) we chanted back to him his Native saga.
The march to the Federal Reserve Bank was more exuberant than angry, an unruly wave of humanity overflowing the sidewalks and filling the streets, cars honking around us. (One man jumped from an SUV, and donated a handful of $20 bills!)
We Occupied the grass in front of the bank, and flashed the peace sign to workers in upstairs windows - who flashed it right back. There were speeches and shouts of "This is what democracy looks like" and "We are the 99%." One clever placard said, "Lower the Maximum Wage." Another, carried by a young man, broke my heart. It read, "This Is My Only Occupation." (At that time, unemployed people were, on average, out of work 44 weeks.)
By night fall we were tired out, and took our leave. But the "Happening" kept happening ... all night, we were told. It marked the birth of a new community that, though gone temporarily from the plaza, is still holding strong in the Twin Cities and nationally. Not surprisingly, it has veered in all kinds of directions, some described in my previous essay.
As a "second line Occupier" (first line are those who slept in the plaza), I have continued to march, and to demonstrate . . . with another spring just over the rise. I am up to my eyeballs in Occupy committee meetings, and my 66-year-old hands are pretty full trying to change the world. In the words of Bob Dylan, "Something is happening here." But as he suggests, we still aren't exactly sure what it is. It is up to us to find out.
See also Mary Lynn's previous post:
Reflections on Occupy Minneapolis
Opening image: Doug Abbott.