Growing up, I believed that the American anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s were exceptional blips in our history, artifacts of a bygone era. Once the dust settled, people figured it was all over and done with. Nobody needed to protest anymore, it seemed, so we assumed we’d never have to again. If people did stage a demonstration, they were automatically dismissed as self-righteous airheads or hooligans.
I turn your attention to the current situation in Europe. Mass protests have been happening there for over 2 years. This past week saw huge demonstrations which are continuing every day in countries like Spain and Greece in response to even more brutal austerity measures currently under debate. The most obvious and extreme case is that of the Greeks, who brought large parts of their country to a standstill in a general strike and took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands. Italy and Portugal (even police officers will join the demonstrators) are poised for organized actions today. I know when you watch some of the footage, people seem totally out of control. But we have to remember that these are people who are out of work, losing their homes, hungry and scared for their families and future.
Media coverage of these events has been shockingly sparse, and the stories that are sanctioned by editors recycle words like “violent” and “clash” in their headlines, discouraging the intellectual engagement of the audience. No mention is made of activists’ ubiquitous talk of international solidarity or how articulate their grievances and proposed solutions are. Images of flames, riot cops in action and Molotov cocktails are carefully selected for consumption. But the countless examples of unmitigated and indiscriminate police brutality, not so much. The panoramic photos of thousands of peaceful demonstrators that should make you sit up and take notice don’t make the front page.
What’s really going on?
On September 17th, 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests occurred in about 70 American cities. People who denied that this was significant or meaningful figured it was just a phase. Many people have changed their minds about this. Within months, Occupy’s language infiltrated popular discourse. The U.S. President started talking about the 99% – a direct reference to the movement’s slogan – and identified income inequality as a serious problem, proposing redistribution via a Buffet Tax – a direct hit at the 1%. As annoying or misled as the Occupy movement may seem to some people, had Occupiers not thrust these issues into the mainstream imagination, we would have never seen widespread criticism of a Republican candidate’s offshore holdings or repeated demands to see his tax returns. Whether or not Obama is capable of bringing about change and regardless of his true intentions, the world is changing the way it’s thinking – and talking – about the interconnectedness of economics and social justice.
And yet, Occupiers continue to suffer the ridicule of those who dismiss them as first world whiners. I’m not sure if detractors were expecting all of New York to funnel into the streets or for the Messiah to come thundering down from the heavens in a gargantuan agitprop display, but for whatever reason, the ones sitting on their asses not doing anything complain that they’re not dazzled the way they think they should be. This is predictable in a society whose elections are flashy spectacles and for whom even counter-culture is commodified (think No Logo). But Occupy isn’t entertainment. It’s a revolution. As activist and musician Ani DiFranco asks in her song, Which Side Are You On?
See no evil…
The problem, unfortunately, is that North Americans have trouble associating the protests in Europe with those taking place at home. Every day we hear about shrinking wages and pensions, corporate dominance, poverty, patronage, environmental degradation, lack of adequate healthcare, the crumbling education system and war. But we turn away. We resist looking deeper because that might make us decide we have to change. And that’s uncomfortable – scary, even. This isn’t supposed to happen here! People aren’t sure where to start. So instead, we just sort of guess things aren’t all that bad and refuse to consider that they could get much, much worse.
There are dangerous anarchists trying to punk the system and ride on our coattails. There are airheads and hooligans. But anyone thinking rationally can see that they are a small minority. So why are so many people obsessed with denying Occupy’s power and predicting its death? I think that deep down, most of us have felt this unrest, knowing that things may seem okay on the surface but at its very core, there is something deeply wrong with this society, or more specifically, the way in which it’s being designed. Once you accept that truth, the last thing you want to believe is that it can’t be changed. We all know fear, and more importantly, we know how it can paralyze us – only we forget we’re already paralyzed. Afraid to fail, the mission is abandoned before it starts. The people who participated in the movements that we now look upon with pride were repeatedly ridiculed and attacked at the time. For some people, it comes down to a fear of uncertainty. Not necessarily a fear of what we can’t do, but rather a fear of what we can: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” (to quote Marianne Williamson).
What once seemed radical is now considered normal.
Consider some of the revolutions in our history: the French, Russian, Haitian and Cuban revolutions, the Renaissance. Were they successful movements? Who can doubt this now? Remember how Galileo was persecuted for introducing the concept of heliocentrism to the world? Or that famous Jew who dared contradict the Pharisees? The fundamental principles that have driven social justice movements and the negative responses to them persist today. If we don’t persevere past these challenges we’ll never know what’s possible. It’s not as though people gathered in a mob one night and the next morning they woke up in a different reality with everything being ideal, clear or settled. There were milestones and setbacks. It was a long slog and there really is no clear boundary that delineates one revolution from the next. When you think about it, that’s all we are: a product of ongoing revolutions. The only reason why the United States has an African American president (really think about that for a moment) and we are seeing widespread support for gay marriage, women’s rights, environmental conservation, scrutiny of religious dogma, cultural sensitivity, science, etc. is because people didn’t give up despite being beaten, humiliated, arrested, silenced and scapegoated. It’s these paradigm shifts that represent progress – not capital accumulation, GDP or currency – and they’re precisely what the authors of The Rebel Sell fail to recognize. Everyone has a role in this process. We have the heroes, the villains, the dreamers, the thinkers, the doers, etc. It truly is the most riveting plot you could ever imagine. One day we’ll look back on this era and see it even more clearly, just as we now conceptualize previous revolutions.
My suggestion to those who remain tentative or negative is to stop wasting time trying to pretend that the world is exactly the way it was before September 17, 2011. Things are changing constantly; everything is always changing. There’s nowhere to go but forward. There comes a time when we have to realize that our insecurities are all in our heads. We’ve asked over and over again whether another world is possible, what we’re accomplishing, how we can understand this beast, how we can know if we’re going in the right direction and where we’ll end up. It’s a kind of intellectual and emotional OCD. It’s as though we know we tied our shoelaces but we keep looking down at our feet just to make sure. It’s easier to look down than it is to look ahead. So where are we headed? There is simply no answer to that question. Mother Theresa said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”. Focus on what you’re doing right now. It’s the only thing you can actually control. If you’re looking for advice about what you should do to ‘make a difference’, you’re not going to find it here. Each of us has to examine our own beliefs, values, fears, interests, skills and resources and apply them in ways that honour our integrity. The rest will take care of itself.
In short, occupy NOW.