My wife and I took our 10-month old daughter Zellie on the Occupy LA march over the weekend. It was a very peaceful, if somewhat subdued moment of people coming together to express their common frustration with the state of our country. I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity; I know the coverage of Zuccotti Park tends to focus on the punks and hipsters, but every age and walk of life was represented at Occupy LA. I would even say it skewed old. Turnout felt somewhat sparse when I was in the thick of it, but the local news estimated the crowd was between 10 and 15,000 strong, which sounds like a pretty impressive figure to me. Zellie did not seem that impressed, but the only thing that really excites her at this age is bananas.
It was the first march I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve always been more of a complainer than a protestor. My civil disobedience mostly takes the form of snarky Facebook status updates and rambling emails to my friend. That’s not a typo, I really only have one friend. My only real involvement in politics to date consisted of attending the Ralph Nader rally at Madison Square Garden in 2000 (Tim Robbins showed up as Bob Roberts! Don’t worry; no one got it then, either) and making a few hours worth of phone calls for Obama in 2008.
Oh, I also went to see George Bush Sr. speak in high school, but that was for a girl. The President was on a Whistle Stop train tour that whistled to a stop 20 miles from my hometown, and the highly crush-worthy Julie C. invited me to join her family at the station. Under those kinds of circumstances, how could I refuse? You show me a guy who won’t drive 20 miles to watch the President wave from a sweet-looking vintage train with the girl he wants to bone and I’ll show you a guy who doesn’t believe in America.
For someone who spends an obscene amount of time reading about current events, my lack of direct involvement has always been a source of shame. I’ve made some phone calls to my representatives over the years on issues that I really care about, but I’m always secretly hoping it will just go to voicemail. My involvement tends to be the quiet kind, the kind that occurs only in my head. The only thing my protesting disrupts is my own sense of inner peace.
Until now, it’s always been pretty easy to excuse myself. In my lifetime, protests have had a slim record of accomplishment. I was in New York during the 2004 Republican National Convention, when everyone in the world who hated George W. Bush came to town to scream about it. As it turned out, an awful lot of people hated George W. Bush. Approximately 90% of New York City and approximately 100% of everyone in every other country in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people blanketed the streets for days, and no one outside of New York cared or noticed. If hundreds of thousands of people can swarm the streets of the country’s media center for several days and no one gives a shit, doesn’t that kind of discount the act of public protest itself?
That was a rhetorical question. The answer is yes. Public protests are just standard operating procedure at this point. Politicians propose something infuriating, people take to the streets in a desperate attempt to make themselves heard, infuriating thing happens anyway. On to the next infuriating thing. There’s nothing special in a protest; it’s just business as usual. Eventually, everyone goes home.
Until they don’t. And that’s the great thing about Occupy Wall Street: they’re not leaving. It’s easy to discount protestors when they show up on your lawn, hoot and holler for a couple of hours and take off; it’s much harder to ignore them when they start their own city.
There’s nothing new in the concept of a sit-down protest. A lot of the commentaries I’ve seen try to make the case that this wouldn’t be possible without Twitter and cell phones, but I don’t really see how technology makes much of a difference. There’s nothing particularly high-tech about plopping a tent in a park and refusing to leave. No one is afraid of OWS because the protestors know how to check-in to Zuccotti Park on Foursquare. They’re afraid because no one knows when it will end.
And make no mistake about it: people are afraid. It may not seem that way when you watch Fox News and the anchors are belittling the people in the crowd for wearing weird clothes or not being able to have in-depth policy discussions off the tops of their heads. But the question all the skeptics are asking — “What do they want?” — betrays an underlying admission of fear; i.e. I do not understand this. So, as bullies are wont to do, they pick on the thing they can understand — look at that guy’s stupid haircut! – to distract attention from their real, palpable fear that they are no longer in control. The world is changing around them and they have no idea how to stop it. Gandhi said it best: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. "
A lot of people are putting pressure on the protestors to come up with a list of demands, as if having a ransom note would somehow increase their credibility. In my opinion, one of the main things the movement has going for it is the lack of concrete demands. There’s this constant pull to bring the conversation into terms the prevailing paradigm understands – the terms of argument. If the protestors say, “this is what we want,” that gives the opposition the opportunity to tell them why they can’t get it, to remain within the cynical bubble where they feel comfortable. “Oh, that’s what you want from your government? Well, you can’t have that because of X, Y, and Z. Stop being naive.” It’s that kind of conversation that’s been keeping us down for so long. We’re tired of arguing. We’ve been arguing for years, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference, because the argument is happening on your cynical terms. We’ve told you what we want a million ways to Sunday and you’re not listening. Maybe it’s time you started speaking our language instead of us trying to speak yours.
Besides, you already know what OWS wants, because it’s the same thing everyone wants. We want the return of the middle class. We want a clean planet. We want a government that favors the needs of its citizens over the desires of corporations. We want a strong public school system, we want dependable healthcare, we want jobs that give us a humane amount of vacation time and a decent living wage. We want a government that protects us … from poverty, from hunger, from illness. After all, isn’t that the point of having a society in the first place? So that we don’t have to spend our lives fending for ourselves? If you really want to be on your own, it’s not that hard. Don’t get married. Don’t have kids. Don’t talk to your neighbors. Just go off in the woods and live alone. There are plenty of places in America where you can still do this and no one will ever bother you. If, however, you still see some benefit in connecting with other people, then maybe it’s time you spoke up.
In the OWS movement, I see a glimmer of hope, maybe the first real glimmer I’ve seen in my adult life. I think people have finally had enough. We’re tired of being forced to adopt this isolationist worldview. We’re tired of living in fear of everyone around us and we’re tired of supporting a system that tells us our fear is necessary. Our goal in life should not be to make enough money that we can wall ourselves off from the rest of humanity. I don’t know when that became the American dream, but it sure ain’t mine.
It’s high time we had a government that worked in the people’s favor, instead of actively preventing us from experiencing personal fulfillment, happiness, and the ability to enjoy this gorgeous planet we’ve been lucky enough to appear on. It is our right and our duty to ask our government to protect the things that really matter: Community. Family. Health. Nature. Life. Call me a hippie if you want to; I’m tired of being part of your cynical, defeatist, anti-humanitarian worldview. You’ll come around. And if living in an equal society that is free of fear doesn’t appeal to you, might I suggest Yellowstone? It’s quite large, with plenty of room to hide. Just remember to hang your food up when the bears come around.