by Tara Zivkovic
“It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
At 7 pm on a November evening, just before dusk begins to settle on the famous Manhattan skyline, the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street is called to order. At first glance, this daily meeting might seem odd to an observer who is unaware of what Occupy Wall Street is really up to, for it is not a typical protest. The issue at stake is the system itself, and Republicans, Democrats, veterans, anarchists, students and union workers are coming together to discuss – and in some ways, to demonstrate – what there is to be done.
During the day, protesters take part in small working groups that are assigned to deal with certain issues, such as sanitation, education, and the handling of funds. In meetings, they employ democratic principals that seem archaic in an age of lobby groups and partisan politics: decisions are reached through consensus, approval is expressed by intricate hand signals (wiggling fingers mean yes; a single hand in the shape of a C signals that clarification is needed) and microphones are strictly prohibited.
The scene brings to mind colonial Boston circa 1776, where the likes of John Adams and company huddled in candle-lit rooms, mapping out what the future of America would look like. And so it appears in some manner the country has now come full circle, just as Adams predicted it would.
For two months, protesters occupied “Liberty Square,” formally known as Zuccotti Park, in New York City’s financial district, before the police cleared them out on the 15th of November. While the evacuation put an end to the visible surface of the movement, its energy and ambitions are ongoing, and the questions it broached have been integrated into America’s political dialogue.
Beyond the media’s sensationalised accounts, it is interesting to analyze what really went on at Liberty Square, and what it says about the state of democracy in America. It is no secret that the United States’ political system has been suffering. Christian Harrington, a professor of American politics at New York University, affirms that America’s democracy is in “considerable disarray in that we do not have a healthy two party system; the political liberals are in bed with the political conservatives.” Harrington continues that it is this very “crisis of liberalism that has led to what we [saw] at Occupy Wall Street.”
Speaking from Liberty Square, Greg Horwitch, an American artist, explains how he found himself occupying Wall Street. “At first I didn’t know what the hell it was,” he admits, “but I think that’s part of it, I think we are coming to understand what exactly it is while it’s happening.” It is exactly this nebulous quality that the media have lampooned from the outset, depicting the protesters as a group of liberal hooligans without a real plan. “Part of our dismal democracy has to do with the media being out of touch,” affirms Harrington. “Days after the initial Occupy Wall Street started in New York, the media lambasted the movement for lacking a neatly-packaged set of goals. But isn’t one of the primary values of democracy openness?
And furthermore, doesn’t this open quality demand time to coalesce?” Horwitch also emphasises how misleading the media portrayals have been. “No one is angry,” he laughs, “it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience where restrictions have only led us to further innovation.”
The absence of microphones, for example, inspired the creation of the human microphone. When a speaker talks, different sections of the audience immediately repeat what the speaker has said, so that those seated in the back will not miss out on the message. In the process of repeating what others are saying, Horwitch explains, one takes part in a goosepimple-raising experience in that “you really come to understand what is being said.” This is the end of talking-heads, and political jargon swirling out of reach to the average citizen; what was taking place at Occupy Wall Street is what participative democracy is all about : whole-hearted, spoken-aloud participation.
“The beauty of this movement,” continues Horwitch, “is how it has radically transformed the way we protest in this country. The real innovation is that Occupy Wall Street is not a traditional protest, but rather a microcosm of democracy. In its procedure it’s a laboratory experiment of a possible democratic system.”
What is most striking, perhaps due to the misrepresentation by the mass media, is the introspective nature of Occupy Wall Street. While it began as a movement against the disproportionate power of the financial sector, for the first two months much of its energy was aimed inwardly, toward building solutions. It was an incubator of ideas. “Come and feel what true democracy feels like,” should have been the movement’s slogan, Horwitch jokes. As one might guess, it feels pretty incredible. Many people quit their jobs to join the experiment. Professor Harrington describes the general euphoria experienced at Liberty Square: “In my life time, I’ve never seen something like this, expect during Vietnam.” She also stresses the considerable expertise of those taking part in the working groups and how open they were to further education. Zuccotti Park gave physical space for dissent, which, certain people behind the movement argue, had been drastically missing beforehand. New York has always been a magnet for progressive initiatives, yes, but to find a place where these movements could meet was virtually impossible or immediately dismantled. Take, for example, the attempted protests during the Bush Administration, which the City of New York banned on the Great Lawn of Central Park, citing potential “grass damage” as their justification.
The fact that Zuccotti Park is private property and open to the public 24/7 proved a strategic blessing for frustrated dissenters. The deep irony, however, cannot be ignored: the battle of Occupy Wall Street – demanding public change and accountability from the government – is being fought on private property. “Tourists now have two major stops in downtown Manhattan,” Horwitch says with an ironic laugh, “Ground Zero and Liberty Square.” Both of which give a crucial peak inside into the turmoil plaguing present America.
With elections lurking aroundthe corner, Democratic candidates see a potential electorate to seduce in aligning themselves with this movement that drew the support of nearly 40% of the American population. But unlike their “Tea Party” counterparts, the occupiers of Wall Street warned politicians to stay far away from their movement. After two months of intense discussion, which is gradually coalescing into ideas, they are not prepared to be “co-opted by a political agenda,” Professor Harrington explains.
In considering this historical movement, one might wonder if we are not witnessing what Adams predicted almost 200 years ago : the “suicide of democracy,” followed by its rebirth. The answer to this remains to be seen. With the Occupy Wall Street protesters still very much engaged in constructing mini-democracies, the ideas behind which could be carried up to Washington, politicians will have to, at some point, be trusted with relaying the message.This article was is from the February 2012 print edition.