The Common Good
December 2011

American Spring?

by Robert Hirschfield | December 2011

Finding connections between the past, present, and future at Occupy Wall Street.

“THIS IS THE American Spring,” roared Eric Seligson, 65 and a veteran of Students for a Democratic Society, “and I am a born-again revolutionary!”

The man in charge of the Occupy Wall Street library said he’d been waiting years for this day, and that describes the spirit of many of the older people who came to Zuccotti Park in New York City to volunteer by day and be part of the General Assembly meetings at night.

I was one of them. Together, Seligson and I watched the young people spreading out on their sleeping bags, holding up their signs (“Defend Public Health Not Corporate Wealth”), sweeping the grounds. Together, we silently contemplated the mystery of wonder. Was the awakening of America’s progressive slumber really happening? Or were we both dreaming the way two old men dream, filling our minds with wistful collages of unfinished business?

I was told that the heroes of Tahrir Square twittered their embrace to the youths of Occupy Wall Street who, on Sept.17, made the financial district their unexpected home after staging a protest against Wall Street greed.

I was struck by how many of the protesters, like their counterparts in Tahrir Square, were unemployed students, first-timers at saying no to their country’s power-holders. If nothing else, Occupy Wall Street is a living illustration of one way the First World/Third World dichotomy has narrowed in recent years. Because of the unhappy globalization of joblessness, some in these two worlds are finding themselves on common ground.

Clark Johnson, a soft-spoken 25-year-old graduate of the NYU law school, didn’t know quite what to make of my ’60s roots. (Like most of the young protesters I spoke with, his reaction was, “Should know more about you than I do. Sorry. But we are trying to make our own revolution here.”) He said thoughtfully, “The people in Egypt had no democracy. We have a corrupted democracy. In both countries, young people are fighting for a voice. But no one is sure what that voice will sound like.”

ONE GETS A glimpse here of a new culture of resistance in the post-ideological world. It might not have a coherent political orientation. No leaders marched around giving orders. (“In our day,” Seligson recalled, “everyone wanted to know what the party line was.”) This, in its subtle way, is perhaps one of the strongest statements made at Zuccotti Park (aka Liberty Park): The repudiation of the culture of the leader. The rejection of the notion that power equals wisdom, correctness, a path automatically to be followed.

At the densely packed General Assembly meeting—with its discussions of economic and environmental issues, as well as peace and war—speakers, being without microphones, had to share their authority with the crowd, beginning with those nearest and ending with those furthest away, all of whom ritually repeated their words, serving as a “human microphone” so that everyone could hear.

The underlying questions: Can politics be made new? Can habitual ways of thinking be re-thought?

There are risks involved. Our hearts sink when we see power in Egypt passing from the powerless into the hands of men with agendas (and guns). But as this is written, the Occupy movement, with the media of the world dancing its obsessive dance around it, is still taking its first steps.

I found myself moving with great fascination among the hard hats, the Hasidim, the businessmen in their three-piece suits, all stopping by to look, to listen, to take in this phenomenon.

Why the fascination? It was due in part no doubt to the sheer strangeness of the American Left behaving as if it is actually a legitimate part of the national landscape. But it is not just that. It was what Allen Ginsberg would call the Prince Myshkin factor of innocence. Free pizza, apples, oranges, bread, and potato salad crammed the food table. There was a free outdoor barber shop. Even a free newspaper: The Occupied Wall Street Journal.

On the ground was a paper plate with money on it. Around the edges of the plate was written: “If You Have Money Give Some. If You Need Money Take Some.” This was the movement’s ’60s DNA kicking in. Playful on the surface, but serious beneath. The place was half-Woodstock, half Tahrir Square, Athens, and Tel Aviv combined.

 Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem had a different take: “This is my vision of what the Kingdom of God looks like. These people are willing to stand up and say that things are not right. This is a fallen system and needs to be redeemed.”

The young people took in stride the transference of political energy from Europe and the Middle East to themselves. They were all aware of it, and it pleased them, but no one was sure what direction the movement will take if and when the encampment is closed down. They talked of taking their resistance back to their communities, but they were not specific about what that might mean. They said that the spirit of what has begun would not be undone. They spoke like people of a new faith.

Sometimes parties of protesters set out with their signs through the streets of the business district. One sign attached to a young body read: “I Owe Sallie Mae $25,000.” Another sign trumped that: “I Owe Sallie Mae $50,000.” That sign belonged to Gemma, 24, once a fine arts student at SUNY Purchase, now an activist, with close-cropped brown hair. “I am out of work and I can’t pay back my loan. Something’s got to be done. I am in this to the end.”

Occupy Wall Street has been accused of not articulating its demands, as if demands somehow equal legitimacy. For now, the movement is still too small for its demands to matter. But its most prominent public assertion says it all: “We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”

The General Assembly echoes an early institution of ’60s radicalism: Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. It may lack the hypnotic oratory of Mario Savio, but what it provides is an uninhibited and reverberating forum for views to be expressed.

I heard a woman utter words I never thought I’d ever hear again in a public place: “We should not end the wars to save money. We should end the wars because they are morally reprehensible.”

The words were repeated from one end of Liberty Park to the other like an anthem.

Robert Hirschfield is a New York City-based freelance writer.

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