What is the Meaning of This?

The Occupy Wall Street movement—now being called “the American Autumn”, after the Arab Spring, or the September 17th movement, after the day it got started in lower Manhattan—is now completing four weeks on the scene. Yet we can still be astounded to hear so many incredulous “experts” unable to understand how a grassroots movement, infused with the zeitgeist of very problematic times, is working toward anything constructive. What is the meaning of this? Why don’t they have a ready-to-go list of demands? What are they asking us to think?

It’s actually very simple. It’s self-evident, but if you’re at a loss, you can also go to Zuccotti Park, or to any of the Occupy Together protest sites, and just talk to people, and what did not seem evident will rapidly become so. The meaning of the Occupy Wall Street movement that is spreading across the United States like wildfire is: democracy. The unifying sentiment, which is actively put into practice every day at Occupy encampments, is that citizens have a right to participate. They are building a participatory process to restore the principle of informed citizen participation to our political system and our economy.

Listen to the protesters: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” This is not pretend protest; this is the message. The message is that people have a right to free assembly, have a right to free expression, have a right to govern their own destiny, have a right to earn a living, to expect that as citizens of a free society, as implicit signatories to the social contract that gives legitimacy to our democracy, they have a right to be treated with dignity.

Above all, they believe it is necessary to restore to prominence the idea that we all have a right to expect that the powers that decide the shape of our everyday existence 1) represent us, and 2) be accountable directly to us, to the people. Participation and transparency are antidotes to the temptations of unfettered power, elite negotiating environments, and deals that ignore the interest of most people and structure outcomes to favor insider interests. Participation and transparency are democracy; their absence is not.

The non-violent citizen-action uprisings that ousted dictators in Tunisia and Egypt early this year inspired a wave of protest across Spain, in which people calling themselves Los Indignados—the indignant—occupied central squares in Madrid, Barcelona and cities across the country, with semipermanent encampments: acampadas. They formed asambleas by topic or task and held asambleas generales to decide the direction of the national movement through direct democracy.

OccupyWallStreet.org describes the American movement as follows:

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET is a people powered movement for democracy that began in America on September 17 with an encampment in the financial district of New York City. Inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas, we vow to end the monied corruption of our democracy … join us!

There is now a nationwide OccupyTogether movement that seeks to coordinate the actions, debates and proposals of protesters across the United States, and across the world. As of today, they have rallies planned for 1,539 cities, large and small.

The global movement inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings has spawned not only the Spanish acampadas and the American Occupy protests, but also the Chilean student uprising, which has shut down much of Chile throughout the southern winter, as students demand wider access to high quality public education.

Some participants have been very vocal that the message should consistently be anti-corruption. And it clearly is. In every sense, the non-violent, sleep-on-the-street, do-for-others, collaborative enterprise that is the Occupy Wall Street movement, has persistently demanded transparency, integrity, corporate social responsibility and accountability. It is very much about transcending what is corrupt in the current system. But it is also about something deeper than that.

Last week, with a large crowd echoing her words in chorus—a practice called “the people’s mic”, done to amplify spontaneously, at the human scale, without electrified amplification—Naomi Klein said the movement was attempting one of the most arduous, improbable and time-consuming tasks: that of “changing the underlying values of our culture”.

There have been crazily tone-deaf responses from some in the political establishment, calling citizens engaging in constitutionally protected non-violent assembly “mobs” and referring to calls for justice, fairness and the restoration of middle class opportunity “class warfare”. What motivates such comment is hard to fathom, though pundits, activists and foreign observers alike seem to think it is simply an unwillingness to see the obvious truth: that the powers that be have forged a dysfunctional and distorted economy that does not benefit most people and does not foster real democratic freedom at the human scale.

The movement has consistently made reference to “the 99 percent“, the vast majority of people not earning 7-figure annual income. The movement seeks to represent the right of that 99 percent of all people to be heard, to have a direct role in helping to fashion the policies that determine what kind of society they and their children and families will inhabit. Messages describing the complaints and motivations of those who want better treatment of the 99 percent are posted at We are the 99 percent.

And they have won support from many of the 1 percent that do benefit from the policies that disadvantage so many. A Tumblr page called We stand with the 99 percent is recording their messages of support for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The Occupy Wall Street movement seems only to be spreading, gaining support and becoming more organized, because it is focused on restoring a sense of reason and justice to a nation too long forced to accept widening inequality, rigged markets and pervasive corporate tax dodging. The cause is as close to universal as one can get. It is about calling on those with responsibilities to hundreds of millions of people, whose decisions affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, to behave as if that responsibility carried some weight in the calculus of their decisions.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is about people willing to give voice to those without a voice. In the assembly process, people don’t just debate ideas, or choose leaders. They aren’t caucusing for positions, or jockeying for influence. The assemblies allow anyone to speak, and aim for consensus. The consensus building process entails hearing all voices, considering competing ideas, then building coalitions of support in order to achieve real consensus among those in attendance. The plan is direct democracy, plain and simple, but specifically a kind of direct democracy in which no one is marginalized.

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Originally published October 14, 2011, at ProjectQuipu.net

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