After being immersed for one week in Liberty Square, ground zero for the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, I looked out at the dozens of heavily armed police surrounding us and wondered – Just what are they protecting us from? Each other? Free ideas?
During the previous week I’d experienced the greatest peaceful out pouring of patriotism, true diversity and idea sharing of my entire adult life. This one block park, shadowed by skyscrapers and located between the former Twin Towers and Wall Street, was likely the most vital, democratic and inclusive space in New York City. In this open forum people of all politics, races and religions peacefully assembled and respectfully shared their own visions for a better future.
Yet we were surrounded and corralled by metal barriers and police as if we were the most dangerous criminals in New York City. Just what were these police sent to contain and why? How many millions of dollars in taxpayer money was being expended on controlling, monitoring and arresting those of us exercising our constitutional rights of free assembly and speech? No news camera can convey the feeling of intimidation and criminalization that being surrounded by armed police day and night creates within those penned in behind the barricades.
This was no dirty unruly mob of anarchists, as some in the media have portrayed it to be. What I experienced was a free assembly of people who chose to brave the elements, hard concrete and the threat of arrest, without pay, to share truthful information, food and the conviction that democracy should be responsive to it citizens rather than its corporations.
At Occupy Wall Street in New York City direct democracy and free speech flourished. Each night at 7pm, myself and hundreds of other concerned citizens gathered together for the “General Assembly”. During this peoples assembly proposals drafted earlier by a wide range of working groups were presented to the NYC General Assembly for discussion and consideration. Anyone is free to join any of the many work groups, which focus on such concerns as media, food, direct action, the library, diversity . . .
These work groups and the general assemblies that govern the occupation in Wall Street and dozens of occupations throughout North America and the world, use a consensus based decision making process that strives to be inclusive of all voices and concerns. This consensus process is guided by facilitators who invite input from all members of the group. They then seek to determine if consensus can be reached on a particular issue.
This process can be time consuming and tedious. But it is true direct democracy that is inclusive, cooperative, egalitarian, participatory, cooperative and yes, sometimes messy.
Yet when consensus is finally reached the sense of accomplishment and group camaraderie can be almost orgasmic. It’s an empowering experience to feel hundreds of people at a general assembly come together in a powerful cheer once this sharing process culminates in consensus. No wonder the Latin origin of the word “consensus” means to literally “feel together”.
This feeling together and sense of common voice was ironically magnified by New York City’s prohibition of bullhorns and speaker systems in public spaces. This necessitated the creation of the “People’s Microphone”. Hundreds of people at the general assembly amplified the voice of each speaker by repeating their words, whether they agreed with the words stated or not. Such speaking together in unison proved to be a powerful exercise in not only free speech but tolerance and listening. Thousands of citizens are literally discovering the power of their voices and creating the true voice of democracy.
Night after night that New York General Assembly, I relished seeing new people light up as they tasted what it feels like to be heard and to count. To be a part of a process in which people collectively make decisions for themselves, rather than having their affairs decided by representatives behind closed doors. Thousands of people in dozens of general assemblies worldwide are awakening to their power individually and collectively. Having tasted real democracy, our current corpocracy in which money counts far more than people, will become even more distasteful.
No wonder this peaceful assembly is treated as a dangerous threat and surrounded as if being quarantined. Freedom and true democracy threaten the very core of our current system in which corporations and government conspire to control our future behind closed doors.
Such a gathering inevitably would be challenged. That challenge came early one evening as I found myself surrounded by secret service agents. Their purpose became clear once I discovered that Mayor Bloomberg was walking through the park, surrounded by a large armed security force. He had come to announce that all those occupying Liberty Square were to vacate the park so that it could be swept clean and sanitized. His message was not well received and he exited the park leaving many in Liberty Square upset.
I felt a bit sorry for this multi billionaire. While I was free to comfortably mingle with my fellow citizens, he apparently needed an armed entourage just to walk through them. What a sad segregation between “us” and “them” – the people and the ruler.
What a shame that Mayor Bloomberg was not coming to Liberty Square to participate in the direct democracy of the people’s nightly general assembly – where all voices are heard. I would have welcomed the opportunity to amplify what he may have spoken as a participant in the “people’s microphone”, even if I didn’t believe in the words he spoke. Maybe this would have let him know that we the occupiers respected his right to free speech as much as any other citizen, regardless of our differences.
Instead he had apparently come to show the occupiers he was still boss in this town and to serve them an eviction notice. Was I in New York City or Gotham City?
By the next morning the occupation’s sanitation department was putting in unpaid overtime, cleaning, scrubbing and tiding up the square – making the pavement “clean enough to lick”. The plan was for all occupants to be fully packed by the morning of the cleaning so that we could clear out one section of the park square at a time, while the city cleaners hosed down the already clean pavement. Then occupants would reoccupy the cleaned space, while vacating another section of the park square to make it available to city cleaners.
A consensus decision had been made by the General Assembly that if the police attempted to forcefully evict all occupiers from the entire park that we would all sit down, link arms and peacefully hold our ground.
We were committed to not be misrepresented as a mob of dirty hippies who could not take care of themselves. Dozens of brooms, mops and cleaning supplies were donated to the occupation sanitation crews, who worked all day and into the night cleaning, organizing and packing.
By the night before the “clean sweep” the park was arguably the cleanest block in New York City. A giant banner was unfurled in front of the now swarming news media. It read:
“To Do List: Clean Up
__X__ The Park
_____ The Political Process”
The occupation had not only demonstrated its ability to cooperatively work together but to point out the real clean up that needed attention. In addition, a petition signed by over 300,000 people worldwide was presented to Mayor Bloomberg that evening, imploring him not to evict this peaceful and democratic assembly.
That evening hundreds of citizens stayed awake for an all night vigil in Liberty Square. By 6 am, as the sun began to creep up behind the canyon of skyscrapers, the entire park was packed to standing room only with thousands of supporters prepared to hold their ground and hold on to their dream for real democracy.
Cameras in hand, myself and hundreds of others were prepared to document and share what ever might occur next. Like a militia armed with cameras, this people’s press was ready to risk arrest or injury to record the truth and hold everyone accountable for their actions.
As we awaited the arrival of the police and the city sanitation workers, who were expected to arrive by 7 am, members of the occupation gave rousing speeches as the standing room only occupants roared and cheered in thunderous agreement. This was a powerful and committed group that was fully awake at dawn and ready to hold its ground for the right to free assembly and speech. What army of police would have the stomach to forcibly remove all of us?
Then it was announced that news had just arrived that Mayor Bloomberg had made the decision to call off the cleaning of Liberty Square. A huge cheer of relief and victory let loose. The sound of thousands of people roaring in victory must have echoed through the canyon of skyscrapers all the way down into Wall Street.
Mayor Bloomberg had made a wise choice for all parties and the occupation won a great victory for free speech and assembly. As I stood amongst this gathering of very awakened patriots I noticed the red, white and blue emerging from the dawns early light and recalled the words of our national anthem:
Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight . . .
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
This was a truly “Star Spangle Banner” moment for an America that I thought had been lost. Yet in the dim light my hope for a true democracy was re-emerging. This was a great moment for America and for all peace and freedom loving citizens of the world. At least in this small square of concrete, bounded by metal barricades and dwarfed by skyscrapers, the land of the free and the home of the brave had prevailed – for now.
The next day tens of thousands of awakened patriots of all ages and beliefs gathered peacefully in Times Square in New York City for a worldwide “Day of Action” in support of Occupy Wall Street. But the movement to restore true democracy was only beginning.
This occupation and occupations everywhere will continue to grow, regardless of what ground we hold on to, because this movement for real democracy is rapidly occupying the hearts and minds of millions of people world wide. Long live the spirit of Liberty Square and the rebirth of true democracy in America.
“They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream which is tuning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scenes from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice. But it goes on walking. Ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street – Hey, look down! We are awakening from a dream.”
- Slavoj Žižek speaking at Occupy Wall Street in New York City