A little more than a week ago, I travelled to New York City for Occupy Wall Street’s one-year anniversary.
I slept on the roof of a warehouse in Brooklyn, I took my shoes off only to change my socks, I brushed my teeth only once in three days. These are the things that I’m sure about, that I can pin down with certainty. The rest of the weekend was a carnival, a spectacle of drum circles and meaningless chants, a gathering that looked much more like Bonnaroo than a revolution.
The Fung Wah bus carrying the small group of us that had opted to go as an Occupy Boston contingency dropped us off at the wrong address, an accident that I find a fitting metaphor for the rest of the weekend: Frustrated and a little lost, we set out to get to the right place, and made it to Washington Square Park a few hours after we had intended. Even on Monday, the day my brochure map said was reserved for #Liberation, when we would converge onto the Financial District and shut down the New York Stock Exchange—even that felt like an ill-imagined maze.
Sure, there were times that were fun—I got to see Jello Biafra, so lifetime dream achieved?--and I don’t regret going in any aspect. I just felt so disconnected from the spirit of the event.
Where many felt pride, I felt embarrassment. I felt embarrassed when a suit walked by us, excitedly talking about how “they were protesting outside my office!”
I felt embarrassed by the young woman who stopped on our march to verify with a cop that if we stayed on the sidewalk we wouldn’t get in trouble. I was embarrassed to be yet another white person in a sea of homogeny.
I felt uncomfortable around what seemed to me to be a useless empowerment, like that sudden movement after being in a constrained space, the way your hip or neck or back crack in an exultation of mobility. All that chanting and marching, well yes, it felt good, but only for a second, only until I looked down from the cardboard to the blank public on the sidelines, who whipped out their camera phones to record the spectacle instead of hurrying away so as to not get involved. And shouting feels good, but at what point does it become masturbatory to yell, “One! We are the people. Two! We are united. Three! This occupation is not leaving,” when there is no occupation, and we’re all leaving tomorrow.
I recognize the value of empowerment. I see how the system we’re up against is huge and intimidating, and sometimes we have to do something, however symbolic, to remind ourselves of our power.
Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have changed the way we and the media and politicians talk about economic inequity. But I fear that this movement is turning into a pressure valve—that events like S17 are letting people get out their rage, that this is a polite facsimile of action that sees a hundred marchers watch from the sidewalk as two cops arrest the one man who was actually blocking traffic. I’m scared that the same people who I saw being empowered will soon be disheartened by their lack of progress. I don’t think that’s what will happen, but I’m scared.
I hope someday I’ll see Occupy Wall Street the way it still sees itself. In the meantime, I’ll continue working within my community, whether or not they want to occupy anything. And I guess that’s the best part about empowerment:
Things will be happening, movement will be moving, systems will be smashed—with or without Occupy.