#OccupyWallStreet: a brave new world, without the irony

general assembly, with facilitator in white tee, speaker in blue, one repeater left front

#occupywallstreet is onto something. We are witnessing, or at least those who are paying attention are witnessing, the birth of an extraordinarily important movement for fundamental change in political and economic arrangements which we have been told are not just normal, but unassailable. Unfortunately the current brutal and oligarchical order has also been protected by the sad reality that many who might otherwise support change are pretty comfortable with things as they are now, or at least think they are. People are afraid of losing what they have, and change is scary anyway. Many are not willing to cross an employer - or any other authority - and many just won't chance reaching for an alternative to what already exists, even if they belong to what the movement for change describes as the 99 percent of the population crushed by the greed and corruption of the other 1 percent.

While this is only the beginning, this is not a children's crusade and must not be dismissed as one. Regardless of one's take on Michael Moore or Keith Olbermann, it's worth thinking about what the oft-self-described 'comic' told the pundit today of the unholy and disastrous alliance of Wall Street, government and the media: "They think they're going to get away with it [and] believe me, they're not done yet . . . " Also: "There will be riots in the streets . . . what you see on Wall Street [i.e., specifically #occupywallstreet] will be known as 'that's where it began'" [my emphasis].

Today some of the most noble and courageous members of the multitudes included in "the 99 percent" continue to occupy Liberty Plaza (called "Zuccotti Park" before the current protest began), to the surprise of most observers, including many of their sympathizers. They remain there even in the rain and in the darkness, forbidden by the NYPD the use of any cover or electricity. Yesterday Barry and I visited their "encampment" for the second time.

Once again we happened to have picked a pretty quiet moment, the police who surround them being content for a time with sequestering their superior numbers and sheathing their brute strength. Of course there was also the implied violence of that monstrous elevated surveillance tower overhead. But people inside the park were not all idle. While some rested or were in engaged in discussions, others were talking to pedestrians who had stopped to learn what was going on. Some were being interviewed by the press, and throughout the hour or so we were there a large group was seriously engaged in the process of an extraordinarily open and democratic "general assembly".

The NYPD had forbidden the, from using an amplified bullhorn. On that subject, the statute forbidding the use of electric amplification for speech, like all New York laws, is applied selectively, and all activists know it. Social and political protests are not permitted to use even portable battery bullhorns without a permit (try getting one), and I've seen cops get pretty violent when they saw they were being employed, as they did inside this camp on Monday. I've also seen the police totally ignore stores and other commercial use of bullhorns on the sidewalk. Naturally the restriction either does not apply to religious institutions, or else it's just not invoked.

The volume of ambient sound found in Liberty Plaza makes it impossible to hear anyone at any distance, and certainly impossible to carry on a conversation in a reasonable-sized group. In order to be able to conduct any kind of assembly the group had had to improvise a system which required more than just a facilitator. A number of hand and arm signals were established; they represented the simplest and most common moves or requests which might be expected from the "floor" (like 'point of order'). Also, because they wanted to keep the noise down (yeah), people were asked, should they want to approve or applaud what they heard, to raise their arms and "jazz hands". Most remarkably, there were also a number of "repeaters" positioned at some reasonable distance from the speakers who were asked to speak from a designated area in the front of the assembly. The repeaters' assignment was to dutifully repeat in unison each phrase uttered by the speaker, who for that to work would have to regularly break up her or his address, thus facilitating its broadcast to the larger group.


I was impressed. I was more than impressed, even if only an hour later I thought to myself, 'what about an old-fashioned cheerleader megaphone?'. But while I was still witnessing this phenomenon at the base of the skyscrapers I thought only of its beauty. Standing near the front and hearing this beautiful call and repeat process continuing for so long, my mind sort of boggled, and my heart swooned. I thought of what it meant to have to pause and interrupt something important you wanted to say after every short word construction, but I also felt that it somehow resulted in a more profound delivery and a more thoughtful response than normal discourse, at least in these circumstances.

I could barely take in the awesomeness of what I was experiencing (ACT UP had only needed facilitators!). I slipped into reverie. I was witnessing the communal resonance of some ur-language; the long-distance conversation of some remote mountain people; a fully-engaged and over-the-top Greek chorus. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, as if these people had been doing this all their lives - or had prepared all their (mostly) young lives for the moment when they would be called to do this.

One of the people who spoke lived in the area and had asked to speak in order to complain about the noise of the encampment (in particular, as it turned out, that of the night before, when there had apparently been an unplanned response to the murder of Troy Davis which violated their own noise curfew). The seriousness, respect and detachment with which the repeaters broadcast to the group (of which they were a part) the complaint being made against it, and effectively against the importance of everything the group was doing, dramatized for me the awesomeness of what it was accomplishing with this free and open, heroically-democratic process being exercised only blocks from the dark canyons of Wall Street.

the fun/arts & culture working group announced "formal Friday" for the next day

sign, at rest for now

central media department

staying clear of the planting beds

pretty focused