Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Occupy Turns One


As protesters marked the one-year anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street in Lower Manhattan Monday, Occupiers in Portland acknowledged the occasion with their own considerably quieter rally in Monument Square.

The local incarnation of the movement has floundered in recent months. Ever since the city shut down the original Occupy Maine encampment in Lincoln Park, the group has struggled to maintain participation and a cohesive presence in the city.
But every grass-roots movement for social change has encountered difficulties and uncertainties in its early stages. Given the aggressive, unwarranted police response Occupy Wall Street and its various local spin-offs have received throughout the nation, Occupy participants must now determine the next phase of its existence.

For now though, Occupy’s message is a simple one: We’re still here.

Nora Tryon unfurled a large banner where protesters wrote slogans, birthday messages, or drew pictures to “celebrate where Occupy has been and where it’s going in the future.”

Sean Donovan, a resident of Brunswick, talked to me about the lack of civic engagement in his hometown and beyond. “People get lost in the minutiae of everyday life,” he said.

Topsham resident, Susan Chandel addressed the crowd on the “People’s Soapbox,” to talk about her battle against home foreclosure. “We don’t know how many people are losing their homes and being evicted [in Maine],” she said, “because these people are so ashamed, and scared, and frightened and isolated they’re afraid to speak out.”

Despite the protesters’ possession of a permit to hold the rally and the overall peaceful nature of the event (this is Maine, after all), it did not take long for the Portland Police to arrive. (Yes, you read correctly: Citizens need to apply for a city permit in order to exercise their First Amendment rights to “demonstrate peaceably for a redress of grievances.”)

Apparently, an anti-Occupy passerby called the cops because protesters had placed signs and decorations on the grassy area around the Lady of Victories statue—which is a violation of the permit’s detailed rules. Curiously, Occupy events are the only occasions in which I have seen this “law” enforced. Every other time I walk through Monument Square, teenagers and guitar-players are sitting comfortably in the very same area, with nary a cop in sight.   

Some claim rallies like this one are meaningless and completely symbolic. Protesters, they argue, show up, give their speeches, wave their homemade signs, chant and cheer and then go home for the day. And while their point is not entirely without merit, voting is symbolic as well. As Emma Goldman famously said, “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.”

I am certainly not suggesting one should not vote. You absolutely should. But voting, like protesting, is just one small piece of the larger, on-going process of becoming what Ralph Nader calls, a “Full-time citizen.” Too often, progressives tend to focus exclusively on just one aspect of civic engagement be it traditional activism, or electoral politics, often at the expense of the other. I find such narrow focus too myopic, and ultimately limiting. Voting is hardly the be-all-end-all of democracy, but then, neither is marching in the street. As activists, we need to utilize a wide array of tactics.

I do not know what the future holds for Occupy, but I do know that the movement is more necessary now than ever. Between corporate power and wealth inequality, the ever worsening ravages of global warming, our eroding civil liberties and the ongoing wars in the Middle East, it feels as though the world is literally collapsing around us. It is long past time for citizens to stand up to these threats to democracy.

According to French philosopher Albert Camus, rebellion is the “true dimension of man.” He views rebellion as the one single act a person can carry out that affirms the individual’s common humanity. In his book-length essay, The Rebel, Camus envisions a rebel as “a slave who has taken orders all his life [and] suddenly decides he cannot obey some new command.”

As a progenitor of the existentialist philosophy of the “absurd,” Camus believes individuals have a moral duty to persevere and fight back against political and societal forces of oppression, even if the odds of success are not in one’s favor. He wrote:

A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.

Or, as a favorite Occupy chant puts it, “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”

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