There are protest signs hanging and leaning all over the Occupy San Francisco camp. The most striking is a huge banner hanging from a line strung between two lamp-posts that claims: “This is a living example of a better system.” This ambitious and hopeful message appeals to the Utopian in me. Despite my hopes, Occupy SF is not Utopia. On the other hand, it is naive to expect it to be a perfect society.
The people at the Occupy camp are there to call attention to our collective short-comings. The most obvious of these, and the reason we are occupying Wall Street and San Francisco’s financial district, is the obscene expansion of wealth and political power in the hands of the richest 1% over the past 30 years. Among the revolutionary elements of the Occupy Movement is its General Assembly which features distributed leadership, whereby all members of the community are intended to have equal say, a consensus process which forms community by making group decisions without winners and losers, and the “People’s Mic” which encourages the community to listen closely and repeat each other’s words. These are the hallmarks of an attempt to change the way we relate to power and to those we live and struggle alongside. At the General Assembly I attended at Occupy SF, all people were given equal access to the floor - no one was marginalized for being angry, or inarticulate, or for believing we are all preparing to fly off in a galactic spaceship of love. Where else do we find governance this inclusive?
The occupiers come to the movement with symptoms of our society's untreated illnesses: poverty, hunger, addiction, greed, impatience, authoritarianism, and physical and mental illness. In the few hours I have spent at Occupy SF, I have seen examples of some of the behaviors I like least to see in my community: people arguing, fighting over resources, accusing each other of wrong-doing, making violent threats, and using methods to police each other’s behavior that too closely mimic the authoritarian structures we are talking about changing. I have grown accustomed to this type of behavior in my everyday life, but experiencing it among the people I see holding the hope to change society can be disheartening.
But the banner rings true - “this is a living example of a better system.” Despite the frustrations, and our own and each other’s weaknesses, the Occupiers say, “I am working with you to make a better world and I will work to improve myself, and support you in your growth, as we figure out what this means.” This can be hard and lengthy work. I am grateful no one has defined a goal or finish line for the movement, because to make a change merely to the political or economic structure would leave this deeper work undone. When we change the way we relate to each other, wealth, and power, those structures will adapt to our new relationships. If the changes are only new laws and new leaders, the old relationships will find a way to recreate the themselves in the new environment. True revolution is a change within the people who make up society, not a shift in the hands who hold the tools of oppression.
What this calls upon all of us to do is to go out into the streets and begin to make the society we long to see. Anyone who is in the bottom 99% income bracket, or sympathetic to their needs, has a right (perhaps a responsibility?) to guide a movement who claims to speak for them. We can go to our local Occupy camp and its marches to ensure our voices are represented when Occupiers speak for the 99%. Also, we can go into our local community and meet with our neighbors, have discussions, make decisions together about what we want our community and our world to look like, and take steps to bring it into being. The example the Occupy Movement is setting calls on us to stay committed to our community and its members; to leave our homes; to live life instead of consuming it in the prepackaged form it is offered to us in, or watching it flicker by on a screen. It is time to Occupy Your Life!