Reflections on the Occupy…Movement

I’m heartened to see people of my generation (Robert Reich, Robert Haas, Vincent Harding, Cornel West and more) in solidarity with the students and other young Occupiers. I only wish that some of the abundantly creative young folks in the movement would explore ways to effectively calm and soothe the police when they are ordered to clear the real estate by the powers who pay them. Rhythmic, continuous chanting of “Shame on you!” though certainly apt, can only raise the adrenalin level of those being addressed. I would hope that the values and goals of the movement, as expressed in the phrases projected on the brutalist slab of Manhattan Verizon building“LOOK AROUND / YOU ARE A PART / OF A GLOBAL UPRISING / WE ARE A CRY / FROM THE HEART / OF THE WORLD / WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE / ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE … OCCUPY EARTH / WE ARE WINNING / IT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING / DO NOT BE AFRAID / LOVE” — could prevail and redirect any confrontational, angry energy that only divides people into one that could reveal how much the police, say, and the occupiers actually share. Singing to the police might be worth a try. Even if it doesn’t change the behavior of the corporate security forces, it might be a lot more fun than chanting a three word admonition.

"Occupying" the Verizon building.

"Occupying" the Verizon building

To paraphrase the brilliant George Lakoff, we need to reframe the narrative that “America is broke” and that “Big Government” and social programs like Social Security, Medicare etc. are the problem.  We need to find effective ways of telling a different story: American values include caring for each other, creating community, empowering all citizens. Government’s job is to protect and nurture.  All these values don’t make sense unless people understand and feel empathy for others in wider and wider circles.  We must not fall into the trap of creating an “other” who is the “enemy.”  To do so is to become exactly what we don’t want to be.  Yes, I consider myself part of the 99%, for sure, but I was speaking to someone yesterday who is a bona fide member of the 1%.  His pain at feeling judged and attacked was no less real than my own pain at feeling marginalized and excluded.  But the problem is systemic. No one thinks of themselves as “bad.”  To blame and accuse only provokes defensiveness and aggression.  As Cornel West would say, our beloved brothers and sisters in the 1% must be encouraged to enlarge the circle of those they can empathize with.  Until one realizes that sharing and cooperation are in one’s best interests, they won’t adopt those values.  Easier said than done, yes. But I sense a tremendous creativity dwells in the “Occupy” Community and I encourage us to tap that energy to tell a new and powerful story of interdependence between all beings, including the beleaguered planet itself.  Stories can change feelings, attitudes and beliefs, all of which inform behavior more powerfully than  either rational argument or coercion ever will.

Footnote: For many the word “Occupy” has negative, militaristic associations. A conquering army “occupies” the land of a defeated enemy. Occupier is often synonymous with oppression. I believe that this movement will need to gain traction among the middle-class and across generations before real change can happen. If it’s seen as simply a vehicle for the venting of anger and frustration, I’m afraid it will have a hard time building those essential alliances.  For these reasons I support non-violence, empathy and respect for small business people, working people, public employees (including police), indeed, for all persons and property.  Tactics that rely on disruption and destruction  create resentment and polarization and rarely change anyone’s attitude. On the contrary, actions that involve shutting down traffic or the everyday transactions of life are invariably used by the powers-that-be to justify repression.

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