The Clear, Present and Positive Goals of Occupy Wall Street

What do these people want? What are they advocating? In the opinion of many, including Gary Alan Fine in his last post, it is easy to discern what OWS is against, but unclear what they are for. They know how to say no, he knows, but he wonders if they can say yes. He thinks this both about OWS and The Tea Party, as a detached but sympathetic observer of both.

Looking at OWS up close, taking part in a small but significant activity, I think the positive commitments of OWS are actually quite clear, and in marked contrast to The Tea Party. As I maintained in The Politics of Small Things, the democracy is in the details. I had an opportunity to look at some details in a corner of Zuccotti Park, joining the OWS Think Tank.

Many of the OWS activists who have taken part in The Flying Seminar sessions are active in the Think Tank. We started working together at The New School teach in. They have been among the active members of the seminar. I have visited them a couple of times in Zuccotti Park, and earlier this week, on Monday, I joined them in their work there. It was an illuminating afternoon.

From noon to 6:00, the Think Tank conducts discussion sessions of a special sort on a variety of topics.  Many different people facilitate the discussions. I responded to an email call for help and volunteered to do my part. The workshop topics range from the quite general, to the immediate and practical. They hope to inform decision-making in the park and to further understanding of problems of broad public concern, and even contribute to the formulation of policy positions and recommendations. It’s one of the spaces where the big questions about the occupation are being answered in daily practice, a striking case of the politics of small things. It confirmed for me that in politics the means are a significant part of its ends, the form at least as important as its content.

At the session I facilitated, the topic of discussion was mental illness and Occupy Wall Street. The subject was put on the agenda by a very practical activist. He wanted to discuss the problems of mental illness, substance abuse and health problems and Occupy Wall Street. He had a pressing need to address these issues, as significant social problems of the city are appearing in the park and dealing with the problems is quite challenging. We focused on mental illness and we talked about it both as a general issue, and as one in the park that required action.

We talked for about two hours. There were multiple voices, presenting different positions, revealing different sensibilities and experiences. Two people talked about their own struggles with diagnoses of mental illness, one thought of himself as a survivor of misdiagnosis and the madness of the mental health establishment, the other, a young woman, as a healed person, thanks to proper medical care. She spoke about how she would have been attracted to the occupation when she was deeply troubled, how she would have wanted to be where the action is, but how her response would have been off, more about her own internal troubles, less about public affairs. The critical young man reported that he was subjected in rehab to drug treatments, which were far worse than the drugs that got him institutionalized. The healed young woman spoke empathetically for people who suffer, about the need to empathize with their situation and to treat them with compassion. The man and the woman didn’t debate. They joined the discussion drawing upon their different experiences. While they didn’t agree in their general assessment of mental illness, they both pointed to a course of action that started with respect for the dignity of troubled people. But of course, this did not settle the matter.

Others joined in, including a woman who worked on mental health issues (I never quite got precisely what she did), the activist who was seeking insight to address difficult problems of aggression and fights in the park, and a woman who emphasized the need for practical action because of a case of sexual assault a few days ago.

The discussion moved back and forth between the general question of approaches to the mentally disturbed and very pressing matters concerning the peace and good feelings in the park. There was the occasional disruption also, particularly an older man who very much wanted more to talk than listen and had his own agenda, criticizing the focus of OWS and the Think Tank, maintaining that the first imperative is to fight against corrupt politicians, including, perhaps even especially, Barack Obama. I really wasn’t paying close attention to his words. Mostly as a novice Think Tank facilitator I was focused on keeping the group on the topic as they were developing it.

But generally speaking, staying on topic was not a problem. The competing progressive approaches that were discussed, I believe, were more or less like what one might come across in a discussion among psychiatrists, from those who are deeply committed to pharmaceutical solutions to those who are radically opposed. No policy was suggested. We didn’t come close to that. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for many reasons. But major issues were highlighted: to turn or not to turn to the professionals outside the park, love and compassion versus safety, treating people as equals versus addressing clear disabilities. There was a realization that general social problems were appearing inside the occupation, inevitably, leading to a need for responsible action.

Nothing was solved. I don’t want to overemphasize the importance of this discussion. It was one among many, without apparent immediate consequences. But, on the other hand, it revealed, at least to me, the answer to the question about what OWS wants. The participants in our OWS Think Tank session were all there because they were saying no to the way corporate power has distorted democracy. They see increasing inequality as a moral, political and economic scandal. They have a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with the prevailing order of things. Saying no brings them together. This is of crucial importance, as Adam Michnik underscored in his dialogue with OWS at the Flying Seminar. “At a certain point you have to say no and the ability to say no is a revolutionary ability.” Yet, once they are together, they are moving beyond no and saying yes, as they act in each other’s presence and consider complicated problems together. The way they interact reveal their positive commitments. Careful mutually respectful discussions, open to opposing political positions, focused on pressing problems in practical ways, not forgetting primary commitments to democracy: social, cultural and economic, as well as political. I saw this at the Think Tank. I don’t think that this is what I would see at a Tea Party meeting. I await Fine’s or a Tea Party supporter’s response.

I know this may still appear to be of little consequence beyond the immediate interaction. But I think it has, involving the media representation of OWS and the deep task of reinventing political culture. I will turn to these issues in my next posts. Hint: involved will be my thoughts on the Occupation and Obama, and the Democratic Party more broadly, and the link between the Occupation and other social movements, especially labor unions. I will consider the problem OWS has in its relations with a broad public, not only speaking in the name of the 99%, but also in a language that the 99% can understand, so that it can respond and act.

  • Scott

    It’s amazing what first-hand experience of participation will do for one’s perception of OWS. I wouldn’t entirely discredit the analysis of sympathetic (or not so sympathetic), yet quite distanced, observers, yet I think the potential for misunderstanding is much more palpable. To partake in its culture and share the interpretive framework of most of the protesters is to understand OWS. Then order can be made of what might otherwise appear to be blurry and incoherent. This is particularly so in understanding that because the process of consensus is so time consuming it may appear as if nothing is really getting done, when in fact, even if it is frustrating at times, it is necessary for the solidarity of the movement to do things that way.