For a lot of us, participating in the Occupy movement makes good sense. We have looked at the numbers, crunched our budgets, and deliberated over the results. The economy doesn’t work. The political system is fundamentally flawed. We need change. But what seems rational and logical to some might not appear so to others. Those of us involved need to acknowledge that a large part of Occupy’s success, on the global as well as local level, comes from emotional appeals and responses. While two of the most common emotions found at the occupation sites, at the rallies, and in online discussions have been anger and fear, in order to be successful the movement will need to move beyond these. Anger and fear are certainly necessary emotions for driving political disobedience, but a successful movement, no matter its local iteration, will also create the space for joy, spontaneity, and serendipity.
I was reminded of this in Washington DC in the days after the release of the Occupy DC Declaration. I came to McPherson Square to see what I could do, and joined a march addressing the $5,000 per plate ($75,000 per PAC) Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser. The march set off down 15th Street, where members of Congress were due to emerge at any moment after the auction of their offices. This was a standard march, with nothing too out of the ordinary from either the marchers or the police, who used twelve or so squad cars to close off two city blocks around the march, then paced menacingly around the perimeter of the protest. Some of the police seemed refreshingly open to a little back-and-forth with the Occupiers, who were in high spirits on this crisp evening. The lieutenants and bosses only scowled. Protesters chanted and cheered. A woman sang a song. Someone inside an office building held out a sign that read, “Housing is a Human Right!” More people cheered.
Things got interesting when it was discovered that at least some of the congresspeople had fled the building through subterranean (or at least sub rosa) channels. This new intelligence pointed down the street to the W Hotel as the gathering place of power. After a brief discussion of whether to split the protest we decided to stick together and (literally) dance our way down to the W. The crowd grew once there, prompting people on the street to stop and take pictures. The Occupiers sat down and linked arms across the two pedestrian exits of the Hotel, forming a chain against the retreat of the congresspeople and their fundraising friends.
The waiting began. We sat and stood. We got cold. A bearded young man finally broke this vacuum of inactivity with a suggestion: There were attempts, he said, to get the Occupy DC Declaration read before Congress, and thus read into the official records. While we were waiting on that initiative, why didn’t we let our supposed Democratic party “allies” inside know what was in the Declaration? It was then that the people’s mic reached its promise: as a way not only to amplify the voices of people in the street, but to amplify the emotions and the sense of solidarity that unites a movement as diverse as Occupy.
The call and response, the repetition of the points, the voices in unison; the beauty of the people’s mic animated otherwise boring phrases like, “Private corporations / with the government’s support / use common resources and infrastructure / for short-term personal profit / while stifling efforts / to invest in public goods.” And: “It is absurd that the one percent / has taken forty percent / of the nation’s wealth / through exploiting labor / outsourcing jobs / and manipulating the tax code / to their benefit / through special capital tax rates / and loopholes.” Like a hymn or prayer response in church, like cheering at a football game, shared feeling was created and strengthened through shared utterance. If the Declaration reads as dry and vague, chanting brings it to life as the embodiment of the structure of feeling that underlies our common aggravation and motivation, our shared sense of injustice. Chanting grievances and solutions in a chorus of hoarse voices, watching the eyes of my fellow Occupiers, I was reenergized. I was politicized. I was moved.
I have not been a part of Occupy DC. I was merely stopping over in the city for a conference, one of thousands who occupy our capital every day in a different way. But this is the very serendipity that the movement needs: a random visitor to a city, off the conference leash for a few hours, can happen across a march, can occupy a space for a time, and come away with a new perspective on political participation and a renewed belief in the political consciousness of the American population. Moments like these remind me that while the economic and political system instrumentalizes my every action, devalues my initiatives, and crushes my creativity, it doesn’t mean that I lack value or purpose. That is the necessary first step in changing the political and economic status quo that has driven the country, and the world, to despair and depression. That is the possibility of alternatives.
The Occupy movement is global, surely. As a broad-based movement it has spurred us to think through alternatives to our current order by changing the discourse of our public debates. Local occupations have their own logic, their own grievances, and their own interests in changing communities and maintaining autonomy in the globalized world. But for however local they are, each occupation, each action in the movement, provides the possibility of serendipity, of spontaneous joy. With a little effort everyone can be energized, politicized, moved.