Saturday, October 15, 2011

Meditations on an Occupation

I have been excited and, strangely, sad to see the Occupy Wall Street movement build support and get mainstream attention over the last few weeks. One reason I am sad is simply that I lived in New York City up until May of this year, and I wish I could witness and take part in what is happening. But I also feel sad because it has brought up memories of the November, 1999 WTO protests in Seattle (I cannot believe it was 12 years ago, but there it is).

For several months I was involved in organizing for the WTO protests on the University of Washington campus. This was an exciting experience as a sophomore in college, and the protest and events that followed were exciting and inspiring - we felt like we were part of something big. But in the months following, I was left with the awareness of the limitations of such protests. It was an event that many co-participants remember as a great moment of standing up to the status quo, but it also felt insular and its long term impact is unclear. In the long run I think that was left  less idealistic about the possibility of substantive change though such movements. This was in part due to the limitations I saw in my co-organizers - gross blindspots, ignorance, egotism, narcissism, and general flakiness (not that I was free of those traits either). "Were these people," I asked myself, "supposed to lead us to a new future?"

Many of these feelings have been revived in the last month, as I've watched the developments in Manhattan: a desire to participate, to "be there" but a melancholy pessimism about it all. One question I've been asking myself and others is how the movement can keep up its momentum and spread its message to a broader American public. Friends who are "on the ground" in New York tell me that the protests are much less radical than the media suggests - they are diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, race, and socio-economic status ("99%" still includes a wide range of incomes, and it sounds like a wide range is indeed represented there). This is hopeful, but I look at friends, family and neighbors around me who are not "political" and they barely know that the protests are happening - even the ones right in our own downtown Seattle. I feel very strongly that for systemic change we need to get "those people" (including the sizable population of Americans who are "Republicans" but don't like what is going on in Washington) concerned enough to do something; not occupy, maybe not even protest. At least vote, and hopefully do something more to demand change.

I've come to conclusion that one cause that could be adopted by a wide spectrum of Americans is divestment form the "too-big-to-fail" banks whose practices precipitated our economic crisis. This movement, represented by the Move Your Money Project and Bank Transfer Day, advocates divesting from Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, and putting money in local credit unions (I hope to make another post summarizing the reasoning behind that, soon).

Another idea I am bouncing around is a Children's Party. The Right had a Tea Party, and the Republicans essentially have their own party within the Democratic Party (the Blue Dog Democrats). What about a party/movement representing children - with the basic message:

What's best for our children is best for our country.

I will hopefully post a more detailed description of what a Children's Party would be, but until then, let me know if you have any thoughts!


  1. I agree with you that "protesting" makes us feel good about ourselves, and helps alleviate the guilt of being a relatively well-off American. It also makes us feel like we are doing SOMETHING, when we just feel hopeless and depressed about a situation (like the Iraq War, and protests at the beginning of the invasion). I'm not saying that protesting has no other benefit, but like everything else we do, it fulfills some psychological/emotional/social need.

  2. I love the Children's Party idea...