Ambiguous UpSparkles From the Heart of the Park: Mic Check/Occupy Wall Street (Part 3)
Originally published in:
The Huffington Post
It was cold in Zuccotti Park this week for our Ambiguous Upsparkles group. Particularly late into it as the sun went down and a wet Autumn wind rose up in the yellow orange trees from the bottom of Manhattan. It was cold and so we huddled together on the concrete steps for warmth, to make it easier to hear, to allow the stories to pass amongst us and through us. We repeated each line of each person's story and the repeating kept us warm.
There was a core of us who stayed for the whole two hours. Many had been there before for each group, some new people stopped by, joined or listened or told a story and then moved on. At the height of the story telling there were hundreds leaning in. There was drumming in the distance, There were tents everywhere. There was a new large green tent just erected for women to make them safe as there had been a sexual assault during the week. There was talk before the group about the violence. Women were worried and they were clear. Things had to change. There was talk about safety and honoring women and listening to their concerns and making space for their voices. There was talk of how drunks and disturbed people were being intentionally sent to the park. There was talk of how the sexual violence was down played so it wouldn't badly impact the movement. The older women activists were disturbed. This was a story they knew all too well from past movements, from past silences.
We introduced the group, explained how we told stories each week so people could share what brought them to the park and what they dreamed of. We said we wanted an alternative to the media who kept telling the public that the movement is disjointed and rudderless because it has no leaders or a clear message or one specific set of demands. We said we started the group because everyone who came to the park seemed to know exactly why they were there and the only lack of clarity seemed to be on the part of the people reporting it.
It was a gorgeous group. Somehow the cold made people braver and more generous. There was more anger in the stories, more sorrow.
One woman had just arrived from Boston. She had lost her job. Her husband was out of work. She had never been an activist. But just standing next to the Wall Street towers made her shake with fury. She wanted the fat cats to explain how they took all those bonuses while she and so many were barely getting by. A young woman from Vermont talked about working with teenage girls and taking them into the woods to learn nature and how they walked barefoot and went wild and learned to make fire without matches and pee standing up to put out the fire. She started crying when she described how the ridge where she lived was being destroyed by industrialization and how there was so much rape in the world and so much murdering of the earth. Her voice cracked and when she cried everyone human mics her tears so we were all crying about rape in the camp, in the world, rape of women, rape of the earth, rape of the economy. She said she had camped all her life in the woods and was never afraid but how camping in Manhattan terrified her.
There was an Iraq veteran who was trained not to have an opinion or ever speak up or back but when his brother veteran got beaten by the Oakland police at Occupy Oakland. He knew he had to find his way here.
There was a young man in a handmade sweater who had just arrived from Chicago who had waited until he could come with something to offer and he finally had figured out what to give -- 1,500 harmonicas so that people could learn how to make music by breathing out and breathing in.
There was the man who was a designer and an artist who wanted to make jobs instead of looking for them and there was a refugee from Lebanon with a beard in a wool hat who was put out of his local video business by Blockbuster who had come to help the homeless even though he lived in his van.
There was a fierce woman from occupy Philly who worked with the traumatized and the abused and she talked about how there was no place for them. They were invisible in the culture and abandoned and I thought about how everyone in our circle felt that way about themselves or someone they loved. How in the corporate story you either rise or fall and if you fall it's your fault just like if you're raped you made it happen. You shouldn't have been in the park, you shouldn't have worn that short skirt or those tight jeans. You should have figured out how to get a job even though there are no jobs. You should have figured out how to win even though the game is rigged for the 1 per cent. If you had been smarter or studied harder or knew the right people or had what it takes.
I thought of rape. How we still blame the victim. How the burden of proof is on the person who is ripped apart. How if it hasn't happened to you, you don't get that it robs you forever. I thought of an economy that has destroyed every single American river and gutted the trees and poisoned the sky and eviscerated people so that the very few can get what they want. How if you are the one per cent you are entitled to take everything. This made me think about the men who grab women because they can. Who do what they want and then after the woman is made to feel its her fault. That she is dirty. I thought about rape -- how we still expect it. We make a place for it. We say "it's just the way men are. Its part of the human condition." Like greed. Like rich and poor, it's the way it's always been.
What's happening in the park is not about demands although there are plenty. It's mainly the young but not just the young in the midst of one of the worst decades of corporate avarice, who are saddled with unpayable college loans, no way to get their parents medical care, who are experiencing snow before Halloween while wearing tank tops earlier that same month, who have come in the face of all that to lay their bodies down on the freezing floor of the city, in the cracks between the towering buildings of greed.
They are saying, take my body, make me uncomfortable, I am ready to do what I can. They have a knowing only the open-hearted have that the future is perilous. They love life. They want it. They don't want to hurt anyone but they will travel as far as it takes. They understand it's about changing the whole story, the story of rape. The violent destructive treatment of women or people of color or the indigenous or the earth or the poor or queers.
Near the end of the group there was one very energized woman with a bouquet of flowers in her blonde hair who said she came because she saw a little message on the Internet in early September inviting 20 thousand to show up at Wall Street. She knew she had to come. She knew she had to get on a plane from San Francisco and after a few days of finding her way in the park, she knew she had come home. Her friends asked how she knew this and she said she wasn't exactly sure. It was a feeling, here, she said rubbing her stomach or womb and I thought of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and how all the people in that film started making cones preparing to meet the aliens, but here we came preparing to meet ourselves.
If we are not afraid, if we open ourselves, we all know everything has to change. We need places to announce and actualize this change. Places are crucial. The ingredients involve stepping out of your comfort zone, giving up more than your share, telling your story and listening to others, not thinking in an obvious linear way, trusting the collective imagination to be more empowered and visionary than your own, refusing to participate in the violent destruction of anything. That includes taking anything that isn't yours, taking more than you need, believing you have a right to dismiss or ignore or belittle anyone with less power or money or education. Believers will always be marginalized and made to feel stupid. They will be beaten with batons and pepper sprayed and dragged off. But no one can evict or silence what is emerging in Zuccotti Park.
Those who have come are the brave ones willing to feel how precarious this corporate system is. They have already passed over. They understand that it takes one bad investment, one ugly divorce, one devastating loss of a loved on, one company or factory gone under and we fall. They know there is no net, no one to catch us here in this fast-paced world of capital and consumption.
Lets breathe into the harmonicas and make winter music, let's protect women and trust the invisible workings of the collective imagination. Lets free the parks and palaces and streets and invite everyone in. There won't be more winners maybe, but I can happily live in a world without losers. There may not be anymore rich, but I'm so up for a world where everyone has something. Let's huddle together on the cold stairs in early November and hear and see each other and be in awe of the miracle that is each person. Let's celebrate how each one of us has survived something so hard, so impossible and we still found our way here. Let's just be people in a park who came because we were terrified that we and everything we love was going to die and disappear. Let's do that, ok? And keep doing it until the towers become monuments to a barely remembered hideous time of greed and we are all together on the ground.
I am a lawyer, painter, and writer, member of the National Lawyers guild, and veteran activist. My first night @ Liberty Plaza was Tuesday, 2 weeks ago. I had come down with a huge amount of macrobiotic-style noodles that I had cooked for people.
I was walking around when my eyes saw a very interesting freshly painted sign in orange neon, that read "Student debt = Slavery". Behind the sign were 2 men, & I started speaking with both of them, as I have practiced bankruptcy law and many of my clients were saddled with debt from credit cards and student loans, which under the Bankruptcy Code, are non-dischargeable. It turned out that one graduated from my law school, Catholic University in Washington, DC, 20 years after I graduated. He was excited to have met Susan Sarandon, probably the most famous CU alumnus, who had stopped by to visit that night.
I was very moved by his story, and amazed at how many things we had in common in our perspectives on the culture. The son of working-class Haitian immigrants, he was first generation American, and had remarkably had gotten three advanced degrees, including a masters from the New School, a law degree, and a Masters in Law (LLM). I was astounded to hear that he was having difficulty finding work, while saddled with debt, and feeling that he would become tied to whatever job he could find. He had done several internships overseas, including one in Morocco, and he spoke of that experience in the context of what is wrong with American culture, and how it started to decline. We both spoke of the quality of our food supply, largely from corporate agriculture, where carrots can taste wooden, & fruits barely have flavor. He described fruit in Morocco as misshapen, even ugly, with blotches and blemishes, including bright-red blood oranges, but which tasted like nothing he'd ever had in America, and as food should taste. He and I both acknowledged the sensory deprivation Americans experience, eating mass-produced, denatured, chemicalized food from cradle to grave. We also spoke of the loss of community, of a shared culture.
Like me, he had loved the movie Amelie, which I thought portrayed a community as an organic whole, inseparable from the culture of the outdoor food market, and sense of caring for individuals. The most memorable scene in "Amelie" was when she gives a blind man a tour of the farmer's market, allowing him to experience all of the sights. He spoke of the huge, outdoor gatherings of people, in cafes or homes, that he had experienced in Morocco, and the wonderful sense of belonging. We both realized that this was what we felt at Occupy Wall Street, and had never felt before in America. There was almost a pastoral quality in the space people have created, an organic, living, breathing, and vital community, which aimed at providing for everyone's needs, whether food, medical care, self-expression, music, art-making, education, communication, and caring. It was amazing to be part of this right in the belly of the beast. I spoke with both men about what it was like for them in the job market, and what it was like feeling one's dreams could never be actualized, and that existence would be tethered to a bank loan. This was a far cry from the sense of unfettered opportunity most of us felt as graduates during the 60's and 70's, the last era of economic prosperity.
We all spoke on subjects as diverse as food, culture, and the war on Iraq, the wasting of the federal budget, and the gross inequality of our current tax structure. At some point, some of the neon orange from James's sign accidentally rubbed off on my carryall, & both of them immediately rushed to get some water & vigorously rubbed it off.
I've been back 3 times since then, and each time the feeling of optimism, solidarity and connection with others grows, as I've spoken with people from all over the country. It is truly an amazing space. A shaman who I went to in the 80's, Andrew Ramer, said to me in 1988 "We are creating the culture of the 21st Century". I feel that this culture and a new political order is beginning to take root at Occupy Wall Street. I want to see it grow and flourish.
What we have here... because you want to know...
I am an occupier. My name is Dan Crisp. I have a master's degree, i am twenty-eight and i am unemployed. i am upset. I (like many other occupiers and Americans all over the country) want to be proud of my country and my government. Before this occupation, I had feigned that pride for years. I was a self-diluted Patriot. I feel less diluted these days.
I have spent the last week living on the cold and honest cement squares of Liberty Plaza and I have come to realize a few things. People want to know what THIS is and what WE want. Well, THIS is reclamation of America and WE are YOU. WE want what YOU want. We want what WE were promised by our fore fathers: a government of the people, for the people and by the people. WE want a government that has OUR interests in mind, not Wall Street's. People over Profit. Simply.
For the people that don't understand what this is, I will tell you:
Liberty Plaza is a true direct democracy. We have a General Assembly where we collectively vote on all agenda items. We are all inclusive and we are leaderless. We have working groups that collectively design our structure and movement. We have working groups that focus on Education and Empowerment in order to better our community. We run seminars and trainings on a variety of issues in order to strengthen our community. We believe in Community and each other.
We, unlike American's outside of this park, have doctors that we can consult for free. We have free legal advice. We are all fed. We march. We rally. We make noise and we have moments of silence. We wonder about the best ways to do things, and because it is a true democracy, we disagree.
It is a move back to Community. We eat together, we sleep together and we dream together. We are not investing in Financial Capital. We are investing in Social Capital. We are all shareholders in a vision, a feeling, but it is more than just that.
As much as it is reclamation, it is also a proclamation. That WE are important. That WE deserve shelter not foreclosure. That WE deserve health care and education, not massive debt. That WE deserve community, not isolation.
We will sleep in the rain for this vision. We will yell into the people's mic until we cannot speak, to try to right this ship. We will risk our health and safety for America.
I am homeless and sleeping on the street for the first time in my life and I can't remember the last time I have been smiled at so frequently.
At worst, this is a beautiful lesson in civics. At best, this is the beginning of an America that represents and supports OUR interests, yours and mine.
I implore you to come and see us. We are bigger every single day. We need you... because WE, are YOU.
#OWS Inspires the Hidden Activist In Me.
Sept 22nd, This Occupy Wall Street thing is growing and doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Every piece of hope I could muster in my body sensed this thing would be something big. I had high hopes from the very beginning. I thought, could it be? Did someone finally decide to stick it to "The Man"? Did these kids actually have the audacity to set up camp right in the front yard of the Wall Street bigwigs and give them a piece of their minds?! Of our minds?! The nerve!! How amazingly incredible! I've been an armchair activist for years, and these kids were expressing the same sentiment I have held for a long time, greed is the source of the world's ills. What they were protesting precisely was still a mystery, but whatever it was, they chose the right venue! I needed to get down there! I searched every thread that had "Occupy Wall Street" in the title. The pictures I saw were incredible, angry young men and women holding up signs and banners crafted out of pizza boxes, construction paper, and pieces of wood. This didn't look like your average "prepackaged protest". It was spontaneous, organic, and wonderful!
After a day of searching through pictures and reading articles, I realized something was apparent. There was a lack of brown and black faces. Where were all my colored people? Did they not realize how high our rates of unemployment, incarceration, poverty, and homelessness were? If they didn't know that then I'm sure they didn't know that the term "Wall Street" came about because African slaves were brought in to construct a "wall" to protect the Dutch settlers from the "hostile natives" they had previously failed to enslave in 1625. My goodness, 300 years of free labor is how these plutocrats built their fortunes, where were the colored faces! All one needed to do is drive through the streets of predominately Black towns and see how poorly wealth had been distributed in this country. Now is our chance to stand up and speak out against this injustice!
I decided to go to Zuccotti Park with my boyfriend after crafting the perfect protest sign it read, "African Americans Against Corporate Greed". He had just as much reason to be there, as a NYC Public School teacher from East Harlem, he's seen his share of socioeconomic inequality. What I saw when I arrived at the park was indescribable, the energy of protest mixed with the sound of a drum circle was intoxicating. People democratically exchanging ideas, hungry people being served food, children reading books next to veterans, looked like some pseudo-world I wanted to live in. I noticed one common thing about these protestors; they were the most educated group of protestors I had seen in my lifetime. There was no shortage of eloquent voices here, no misspelled signs, no easy way for a politician or any other charlatan to come in here and take advantage of the momentum they had going on. I knew I was in the right place. One thing was certain, my life had changed forever. If nothing else came out of this, the movement would inspire a new generation of young activists and change was inevitable.
I come to Wall Street from a place of privilege. I always come from a place of privilege. I didn't decide to go because I'm hungry or because I'm unemployed. I have a nice apartment, an education, a job, and a support network for which I am boundlessly grateful. I come to Wall Street because I have to. My conscience, my heart, the very core of my being demand it. When I watch the news, when I look around me, I feel like I'm being crushed. We all are. Some more overtly and ruthlessly than others, but none of us are as numb and disconnected as they make us out to be.
The other day, I thought about how, less than 600 years ago, people drank out of rivers. Now, worried parents scold their kids for catching raindrops on their tongues and we can't even swim in the ocean on certain days. Now, everything is radioactive, including our main means of communication with one another. And the State Department supports the approval of an XL oil pipeline that would run through one of our earth's lungs.
Sometimes life touches me, the utter magic of it, the love, the connectedness, the potential. When it hits me, I've always been with close friends and family, making thanks-giving toasts or gathering to share stories and music on warm nights. Yet here I was, as dusk was falling, alone in Zuccotti Park with a mass of strangers gathered under those tall, isolated corporate buildings, in a city I moved to 3 months ago without much of a plan. And I was feeling one of these magical life moments. I was speaking in unison with everyone around me. Perhaps more strongly than ever before, I sensed I was exactly where I wanted to be. 100 percent. Life was sparkling. "They've been lying to us," a woman said, with tears in her eyes, "we, all of us, do care."
Later, on my train ride back to Brooklyn, I was reading the Occupied Wall Street Journal. The passing subway stations revealed steadily and predictably changing demographics as we left Manhattan and the physical center of the movement. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the black woman sitting next to me had taken out her Occupied Wall Street Journal. We sat there, reading side by side, immersed in our respective afterglows. I wonder whether the people across from us noticed what we were reading. It could have been any other paper, from the way we were sitting there, apparently disconnected from one another. I smiled to myself: "this is really happening." It's deep. And big. And sweetly subtle. All at once
Paula Jo Allen
I have marched for peace and civil rights, against nuclear missiles and the war in Iraq. I have felt exhilarated in the midst of thousands of people demanding justice and after I have often felt disappointed, even guilty. I have ended up eating sushi, going home, having a bath and watching the news to see the number count and commentary on the demonstration - making the media response into something that really mattered.
I believe in Occupying, in refusing to go home, to be silenced, shut down. I believe in visibility, declaring that THIS matters enough to forfeit one's comfort, one's life style until the world does change - until the missiles are not deployed, until violence against women is unthinkable, until the only choice is not to wage war.
The more I stay in Zuccotti Park, the harder it is to accept the structures of what is acceptable between having and not having in the world. This has always been hard for me, which may explain, in part, why it is so easy, so comfortable, so necessary for me to be an actual physical part of Occupy Wall Street.
Over the past 24 hours, one of the primary conversations that I have been listening to and participating in is about the "homeless problem" in the park. "Should the homeless be there when they are not really part of the movement?"
To answer this: Yes. Isn't this obvious? Odd isn't it that I have a home (in fact two) and I am welcome there (given a tent, gloves, food) because I am an "activist," but those who need the support are deemed a liability to the movement.
What doesn't make sense about this: Hundreds of people are camping in a public park where people without homes can be more secure, receive shelter and medical care, and it is being suggested that they should return to a public shelter where they are less safe, receive shitty food, and are thrown out during the day until the doors open again at night. I have met at least three women (one transgendered) who are at the park because they were raped in the shelters. This is horrifically common.
Zuccotti Park is not trying to be a utopian community. It is a very raw, strange, passionate, scary, creative, divine experiment in living. A real viable, powerful political movement grew out of people's willingness to not leave. I see people learning how to respond to every kind of situation non-violently, to form one unified human body when faced with both fellow occupiers and police violence.
I think that the camp will continue and at the same time, I don't know that. We don't know what is being planned to dismantle the camp. I trust the conviction of the majority of the occupiers to stay through the winter. There are more tents this week. There are stationary bikes generating the electricity for the camp (since the fire department removed all the generators). The "people's library" has hundreds of books. More and more volunteers are walking through the park with brooms and dustpans keeping the park clean. Last night I lay in the tent and listened to conversations outside. It was 2am and people were telling their stories, those sweet connecting stories of where we are from and why we are there.
I see what is developing around the world in support of the Occupy Movement. I see how representative this movement is of humankind. I see what we have learned and where we became connected and engaged with each other and how we became more powerful. I don't feel a conflict in the contradictions or "mistakes" of the movement, but in fact, I feel deeply excited and hopeful, and kind.
Follow Eve Ensler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eveensler