A Thousand People in the Street: An Occupation Meditation

The Summer of Love Meets The Winter of Our Discontent

They are angry.

On that much, everyone agrees.

As the mainstream media wakes up to the Occupation of Wall Street and as that protest, and its growing collection of siblings around the globe, enter their second month, the inchoate nature of the whole enterprise is emerging as its distinguishing feature.

There are no recognized leaders. There have been no demands. There is no future agenda. There are only a growing collection of tents in cities around the world, filled with people, not all of them young, who seem convinced the present state of affairs can no longer be tolerated with silent acquiescence.

The lack of a formal agenda makes what by now deserves to be called (at the very least) a nascent movement unlike even its more open textured predecessors.

It is not a good-natured convocation of liberals gathered to call for a more civil discourse, like the Rally to Restore Sanity. Its not a coalition of disparate groups making common cause against a common adversary, like the succession of demonstrations and general strikes that rocked Paris in May 1968.

It is spontaneous and at least in part a creature of new communications technologies, like texting and tweeting, as were the vast rallies this winter in Tahir Square, but unlike those rallies, it lacks the focus of a single, clearly articulable demand.  It is not nearly as vast as the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, but like that event, it seems to be settling in for a long haul, and to be evolving  an agenda as it goes along.

Michael Kimmelman noted as much in the Sunday New York Times, when he wrote that the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park have created their own polis, built on consensus and cooperation, a functioning, self policing community in miniature, within which protesters with different concerns and different messages are forging ties based on proximity and discussion.

How long that remains the case, and whether the ethos of shared endeavor can survive the growth of tent towns into tent cities, remains to be seen. Consensus born of collegiality works best in microcosm. New York cannot be run like a New Hampshire town meeting. But that those discussions are taking place at all provides an object lesson in what large scale democracy, managed from the top down, can seldom achieve, and what makes the Occupations unlike other recent acts of public demonstrations.

The Occupation, like a protest march, has taken hold of a public space to articulate its message face-to-face to the financiers against whom it is aimed, and the passers by who form its primary audience. Kimmelman, in his thoughtful essay, rightly noted that in doing so, the Occupation both joins a long line of American protests that have drawn symbolic meaning from the forum in which they were conducted.

What makes the Occupation different is the way in which it relates to the forum. Unlike, say, the Million Man March or even the various demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, the Occupation – despite its name – does not really occupy, to the temporary exclusion of other uses, its chosen forum. It is less an act of temporary occupation than it is the beginning of an ongoing vigil.

The idea of an encampment as an exercise in public discourse is not new. And the ways in which it differs from a march or a parade are worth considering.

Unlike the latter, which occupy a public forum completely, and exclusively, for a brief time, the Occupations inhabit the public spaces of which they have become a part less dramatically, but for an indefinite duration. The message they convey draws its force not merely from the force of numbers, but from the persistence of the messengers. Unlike a march, a vigil evolves: it is interactive, a teachable moment, an ongoing encounter. It is perfectly suited to the loosely joined complaints of its various participants, knitted together by a general sense that the nation has lost its way. It does not deliver an emphatic message so much as pose a persistent question. It is punctuated, if at all, not by an exclamation point so much as by a long trail of ellipses.

This is a sit-in, and like every sit-in, it carries with it a moral ultimatum. From the Bonus Army to the Freedom Riders, to the mock shanty-towns that urged colleges across the east to divest themselves of their South African assets in solidarity with the victims of Apartheid, every sit-in defies the powers to which it speaks truth to move it along.

When demonstrators in Times Square on Sunday reminded police that the “whole world was watching” they not only echoed the Grant Park of 1968, they also enunciated the central rhetorical reality of what was going on downtown.

The inchoate gathering encamped in Liberty Plaza Park may not have a focused message, but they do have the spotlight. Like the lunch counter demonstrators of fifty years ago, they are using it to insist that we answer uncomfortable questions to which answers are long past due. They are defying us to answer them, to engage them, or to move them along. They are doing it face to face. How we as a nation respond will define us at this moment in our history, whether we like it or not.

Next time, I will give some thought to the notion of a demonstration that evolves an agenda as it progresses, and what it says about First Amendment freedoms and the scale of civil discourse.

For those intrigued by such questions, it promises to be an interesting autumn, sandwiched somewhere between the summer of love and the winter of our discontent.

Cleveland, 19 October 2011