Spirit of ’76: Occupy Philadelphia, Voicelessness, and the Challenge of Growing the Occupy Wall Street Movement

I spent the early evening of November 8th wandering around the Occupy Philadelphia (OP) encampment. I was trying to clear my head before a scheduled talk by well-known social movement scholar (and one of Glenn Beck’s “most wanted”), Frances Fox Piven.

Ten minutes before the talk was scheduled begin, I moved to the stage area and found a surprisingly large group of people had begun to gather. I was immediately struck by how out of place they looked based on my experience. They lacked the all-weather, busy or exhausted appearance that characterizes a lot of people I encounter at OP. But they also didn’t seem curious or confused. Their gaze took in the camp with understanding. They were nearly all white, young, and dressed similarly, most likely, college students.

I found a spot off to the side of the crowd as Piven was introduced and began to speak. Moments later, I was approached by a black couple, a woman and man, both in their late teens or early twenties, standing arm-in-arm, carrying shopping bags, with glowing faces. They appeared to be on a date and were clearly happy to be together, even in love.

Gesturing toward the stage, the young woman asked me, “What’s all this?” I began to reply that she, Piven, is an academic, but I was interrupted. “No,” the woman corrected me, “all this,” sweeping her arm across the entire encampment. I told her it was Philly’s answer to Occupy Wall Street, “You know, in New York.” She stared back at me, shaking her head slightly. The young man quickly said, “Oh, yeah, I think I heard about that, but I didn’t realize it was here too. Well, this is good because there are problems. I just didn’t know about it cause I didn’t see it on the news or anything.” I asked where they lived. “North Philly, like 21st and Cecil B. Moore.” This is less that 2 miles from where they stood now. Indeed, they live only blocks from Temple University, where Piven had spoken earlier in the day.

That evening, I encountered a lot of young white college students who seemed to be supportive of and conversant in the occupation, and a young black couple who were very supportive and interested, but unaware of its existence in Philadelphia. Why is that?

In my experience thus far, the demographics, geography and even the basic character of the daily interactions that occur in OP’s universe are deeply reflective of the city itself, of its history, geography, problems, tensions, and dynamics. I raise this point not to suggest that Philadelphia, and its occupation, are particularly unique in this regard. Rather, I feel that the Occupy movement as a whole, particularly now, faces the problem of connecting global and national level rhetoric with the specific, daily experiences of the 99%, in their diverse localities.

Dan Sherwood addressed this in his post a few days ago., making a crucial point about the Occupation movement:

“The OWS movement is not about a specific policy agenda or in defense of a particular social group. The OWS movement is a desperate amplification of a silenced and ignored expression of broad based and deep social suffering. The metastasizing ills and injustices of social inequality can be ignored no longer. Although born of desperation, OWS has peacefully organized an open structured movement that threatens to create a public space of discussion in perpetuity. It is precisely the perpetuation of public discussion that has been so threatening to elites.”

I couldn’t agree more. That “amplification” is exactly what the Occupation Movement is ultimately about, or anyway, what it has come to be about. But this is also what I feel OWS represents. What does that couple-in-love, heading home to one of many historically impoverished and underserved neighborhoods in Philadelphia, feel that OWS (or OP) represents?

The issue of voicelessness highlighted by OWS is a very real problem. However, this critique must also be a reflexive one. Jurgen Habermas, the world famous social philosopher and student of the public sphere, was famously criticized for his framing of the business-minded social interactions of white, moneyed men as “public,” without recognitizing the many de facto criteria for participation in this public. OWS has to address this problem. We need to seriously examine what it is “amplifying.” OWS needs to work to make sure that its microphone is really reaching into the most disenfranchised and abused communities of the country. And this public must remain vigilant in insuring it is truly open, without becoming lost in its own rhetoric of universality. We must push our outreach efforts harder to ensure that more people not only know about OWS publics around the country, but that they feel welcome and capable of participating.

Indeed, in my Philadelphia experiences, the occupation’s effort at promoting individuals’ right to democratic expression appear to be butting up against individuals’ ability to express themselves in this sphere. This is not for lack of intellect or will. Rather, the most sinister effect of political disenfranchisement and the loss of participation in a democratic public is the “deskilling” that accompanies it.

Over successive generations, Americans have simply forgotten how to talk to one another about these issues, how to connect their lives with the machinations of global and national political and economic systems. Declining voting rates in federal elections, even steeper declines in in local and state-level political participation, the simplified and pandering rhetoric of national political debates, and the sheer animosity that currently infects the American political debate, all speak to this trend of the increasing absence of ordinary Americans in American politics.

Indeed, while speaking with that young couple and explaining some of the issues OP is organizing around, the pair nodded, asked detailed questions and appeared to agree with most points raised. However, as that evening’s general assembly got underway just a few feet away, and I began to explain how it worked, the couple expressed confusion about the link between the grievances behind the occupation and the democratic decision-making process used across the OWS movement. The young woman said to me, “It’s nice to get to tell your story about how some bank screwed you over or vote about moving to a new camp, but how’s me doing that gonna help, like, my block? You might wanna close a bank, but I want my block fixed and the city won’t pay for it and the government in Washington is just gonna listen to whoever’s the loudest.”

This point was further highlighted in a conversation I recently had with a blind Hispanic man who has been trying to promote ideas for reorganizing OP around issue areas (e.g. prisoner rights, environmentalism), rather than working groups which tend to form around skill sets (e.g. facilitation, messaging, coordination, outreach). His point was that “people who come to OP looking to get involved, but aren’t familiar with this form of political organizing, are thrown into a confusing system that speaks a language they don’t understand,” leaving potential supporters feeling excluded and disconnected, even resentful.

In this context, David Brooks’ now oft quoted observation that OWS has “changed the conversation,” begs the question: whose conversation? Returning to Dan Sherwood’s comments, I have to ask: is the form of public discussion that is currently surrounding the OWS movement really all that threatening to elites?

The OWS movement has accomplished a lot, and I have nothing but hope for the future. But, OWS must continue to root out the power of elites in society, in all its hiding places. While this movement has done a great deal to counter the imposed voicelessness that left nearly all Americans out of “the conversation” before September 17th, OWS must move beyond focusing on the conversation. Indeed, the true power of elites lurks within the conversation itself, in its language, medium, and framing as universal and relevant to the real lives of individuals. While it was amazing to see how someone like Tim Pool was able to shine a digital light through the darkness of media blackouts and police violence, it is important to recognize that this light is digital, and it cannot be seen by everyone.

At this important moment, following a day of unprecedented action across the country, the OWS movement must remain focused on raising political consciousness. We must do more than simply change the conversation. We must move to create conversations where they haven’t existed in a long time and in forms that have never been seen before.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I am broadly sympathetic to the Occupy movement. But I think that Colin is highlighting an important problem here. Speaking in the name of the 99% is much easier than developing critical discussions and courses of action as a substantial part of the 99%. This is the great challenge of the new phase of the movement. Speaking in a way that addresses the concerns of the young couple Colin can understand and appreciate is the prerequisite to being a consequential historic movement.

  • Scott

    I agree that the conversation can be more specific in offering solutions. But there are conversations occuring now that would most likely not have been occuring before the movement began. I’m just talking about the media sphere. Last week, while waiting in line to get some food from a street vendor across from Zuccotti Park, I listened in on a conversation between a man in a suit and tie debating with a protestor about the social meaning of money. By my estimation, the protestor, who just happened to be extremely knowledgeable about the history of the US monetary system, was winning the debate, and the suit seemed to be impressed. Not that anything had actually changed, but the thing about it that struck me was that it was not just an example of “preaching to the converted.” More conversations like that, “across the aisle” so to speak, need to be taking place. And, if its done right, I think there is potential there to indeed raise political consciousness to a new level.