Monday, November 21, 2011
On Being the Moral Compass for a Nation
All my troubles, Lord, soon be over, all my worries, Lord--about what might happen if Wall Street protesters tried to survive a bitter "Valley Forge" winter in Zuccotti Park--soon were over. Within twenty-four hours of my previous post, the whole Zuccotti encampment vanished overnight without a trace. On November 15th at one a.m., New York police, using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd, raided the park, removed all the tents and tarps, and tossed everything on the site into the maws of waiting sanitation trucks. Not even the library books were spared.
On that November morning, when the rest of the country woke up, Zuccotti Park had been restored to its former pristine state and resembled nothing so much as an old-growth forest that had been newly clear-cut. The ferocity of the Occupiers' resilience and will power would not be tested here. Sanitary conditions reigned again, the messy remnants of those who had been lamenting the disgrace of humanity's rampant greed dutifully hosed away. Gone, too, was the exemplary democratic village they had so carefully constructed as a rebuke to the crummy, second-rate world they have inherited, with its fatal indifference to those in need and to the very earth itself.
"They had to go," a friend's husband, now 92, told me the next night over dinner. "What they were doing was illegal, camping on someone else's property, and it was unsanitary." Maybe so, I said, but was it more illegal than when we went into Iraq to "shock and awe" the population? Was it more unsanitary than the mess we created there?
Previously, police had brought prisoners released from Riker's Island who had nowhere to go into the park. The homeless and the mentally ill also arrived, but the protesters did not recoil from this invasion. On the contrary, they included these people in their tiny model society, even arranging for on-site treatment by drug counselors and social workers. In one tent, you could get vaccinated against the flu. In another, you could borrow a business suit to go to the bathroom in one of the restaurants nearby without attracting undue attention.
"We decided we wouldn't marginalize these people like the rest of society does," one of the movement's most devoted organizers, Katie Davison, a film-maker in her early 30s, told Michel Greenberg, who has written about Zuccotti Park in a recent New York Review of Books. "I guess we've created our own welfare state, and I mean that in the best sense of the term." Zuccotti Park was not just a tent city. "I want us to be the country's moral touchstone, its unofficial conscience. It's a model for what is good." (I actually cried when I read that.) It was part of the movement's effort to show the world a better, more humanitarian form of democracy, a new kind of social system, not motivated by a corrosive appetite for power, influence, and control of the political system. Occupiers cherish their status as ethical defenders of the 99 %.
"At some point in time," a character muses in Haruki Murakami's latest novel, "IQ84," "the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place." Sadly, on November 15th, that analogue replacement world also vanished: it was forcibly evicted. Fortunately for us, however, the story doesn't end with eviction or pepper spray. A huge network of like-minded people has been galvanized, who will not back down in the campaign against plutocracy and greed. Exactly what direction that energy will take now that the model community in Zuccotti Park--symbolic of the movement as a whole--has been dismantled, still remains to be seen. Plans are being developed for a national occupation of the National Mall, the big park that runs between the Capitol and the Lincoln Monument. A national General Assembly is in the works for April 1, which will focus on the failure of Congress to represent the views of the majority of people, and allowing special interest groups to dominate the political process in favor of the 1% at the expense of the 99%.
One Occupy member reports that a rotating team of thirty to forty volunteers, minus their sleeping bags, still patrol the park all night, drinking hot chocolate for warmth. Other Occupiers who came from out of town have found places to sleep at friendly neighborhood churches, and the kitchen still operates out of nearby Trinity Church. It is both ironic and compelling to me that humanity's fate, now playing itself out in the grimmest of ways, will depend on the fate of tandem teams of men and women standing watch and drinking cups of steaming cocoa at two in the morning in an otherwise deserted park at the bottom of Manhattan. But as their story goes, so will go ours as well. Whatever happens to them will be what happens to us. We are the 99%.