Why We Occupy

posted October 17, 2011

The main reason I originally headed down with my sleeping bag to join the Occupy Los Angeles movement was to get a first-hand account of what was actually happening, as it can be rather hard to get a firm grasp on such a seemingly amorphous movement based on second-hand information. When I got there, I planned to record and share details on the organization and practices – the general assembly, the focus committees, the various stations such as the medical and media tents, or the relationship between the city and the camped-out occupiers. Those things are interesting, but ultimately unnecessary to discuss, because they are small compared to the question that I frankly didn’t think I would be able to answer after just a few days on the ground: what is happening here? What is the fundamental spirit that really connects all of these people?
I stumbled upon an understanding of this idea after striking up a conversation with one of the occupiers. He was a thin man who looked to be in his twenties, with a ponytail and the sort of half-formed facial hair that would make you think that he has a spent a lot of late nights writing computer programs and commenting on tech blogs. I asked him to share his thoughts on what he thought was happening and why he was there, and he gave an incredible response that I would like to paraphrase for you here.

He prefaced his response with a story about the Burning Man festival, which he has attended twice (and during which he has enjoyed non-trivial amounts of LSD). At the center of the Burning Man campground is a giant effigy (the eventually burning “man”) which campers can use to orient themselves and find their camp site. If you know, for example, that you’re behind the man’s left foot, then you can pretty easily find your place. However, the effigy is burned during the multi-day festival, at which point the only point of reference that you’d had to help negotiate the space has been removed, forcing you to find some other way to locate your camp site. He used this story to set the stage for describing what he sees has happened in the world at large. On 9/11/2001, the destruction of the twin towers meant the loss of a point of reference for all Americans; we lost the sense of global financial and imperial dominance over the rest of the world that had for so long been used to describe what made America special. The framework in which we understood the world was destroyed like the burning man. Within moments, though, a new set of guideposts was established and enforced across the land. We were at war, and we were told to understand the world though the eyes of suspicion, hatred, competition, and above all, fear. These were the new guideposts for the world, and this was the language we were to use to describe our experience.

What we are seeing now across the country – or across the entire planet – is a rejection of this framework. We are seeing a refusal to accept that the world is defined by fear and hatred. We are seeing a refusal not just to get in, get ours, and get out, but to believe that such a way of life was ever really a option. We are seeing an effort to shock the world the way that the World Trade Center attacks did, an effort to pierce the skin of the societal balloon so that it will pop and need to be re-created with new guideposts, with new understandings, with new values. We are seeing a massive swelling voice, a global collective consciousness that is is shouting loudly and unwaveringly that we see the world as a canvas for peace, not as a battleground, that we choose love over hatred, trust over fear, honestly over deceit, cooperation over competition, and charity over selfishness.

What we are seeing now, in every city and in every country, is that people are sick of having to describe their world in destructive terms. They know that the last time there was a major opportunity to redefine the world, they were caught sleeping. They will not let this happen again, so they are awake and they are occupying, not waiting for the next opportunity to arise, but creating it from nothing but their courage and their unrelenting ability to fail, for they know that we as a species do not have the time to leave things the way they are for much longer. We are seeing a revolution of language, of thought itself, and it is simply the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed or been a part of in my entire life, and would not be surprised if that holds true to my dying day.

So why is this so hard to understand from the outside? Why does it take a few days in a sleeping bag, at general assemblies, or in impromptu discussions with a fellow occupier, to understand this? It is because many occupiers are still trapped in the language of the past; their signs, their demands, and their chants largely discuss matters of politics and economics because that is the current language of the world and because that is the language that they have been taught to understand. They want to talk about love, but either don’t know how or simply don’t quite realize it yet, so they talk about economic equality and changes to the political structure, ideas which have some roots in love, instead, as that is what they know how to discuss with the set of tools they currently have at their disposal. However, the incredible collective consciousness that is awakening is very quickly changing that language, and we can only hope that as people begin to more fully realize the beating heart of their purpose that they will fully appropriate their new language in order to more clearly bring the message to the rest of the world, that they will move from the “us-versus-them” cause of the so-called “99 percent,” a good-natured idea that is still trapped in the language of the fearful and divisive world at present, and evolve to champion the cause of the “100 percent,” a similar idea that more fully realizes the cooperative and loving future that we hope – that we need – to see.