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Occupy Your Victories

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Posted on Sep 19, 2012
david_shankbone (CC BY 2.0)

By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

People learned how direct democracy works; they tasted power; they found something in common with strangers; they lived in public.  All those things mattered and matter still. They are a great foundation for the future; they are a great way to live in the present.

Maybe Occupy was too successful a brand in that it sometimes disguised how much this movement was part of popular surges going on around the world: the Arab Spring (including the three successful revolutions, the ongoing Syrian civil war, uprisings in Yemen, and more); the student uprisings in Montreal, Mexico, and Chile that have continued to develop and broaden; the economic revolts in Spain, Greece, and Britain; the ongoing demonstrations and insurrections around Africa; even various acts of resistance in India, Japan, China, and Tibet, some large and powerful. Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, these days a lot of the world is in some form of rebellion, insurrection, or protest.

And the family resemblances matter.  If you add them all up, you see a similar fury at greed, political corruption, economic inequality, environmental devastation, and a dimming, shrinking future. 

The Heroic Age

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Nevertheless, the one-year anniversary is likely to produce a lot of mainstream media stories that will assure you Occupy was only a bunch of tents that came down last year, that it was naïve, and that’s that. Don’t buy it. Don’t be reasonable, don’t be realistic, and don’t be defeated.  A year is nothing and the mainstream media is oblivious to where power lies and how change works, but that doesn’t mean you need to be.

That same media will tell you 99 ways from Tuesday how powerless you are and how all power is made by men in suits who won or bought elections, but don’t buy that either. Instead, notice how terrified Vladimir Putin was of three young performers in bright-colored balaclavas, and how equally frightened Wall Street is of us. They remember something we tend to forget: together we are capable of being remarkably powerful. We can make history, and we have, and we will, but only when we keep our eyes on the prize, pitch a big tent, and don’t stop until we get there.

We live in the heroic age itself, the age of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, of the Zapatistas in Mexico, of the Civil Rights Movement’s key organizers, including John Lewis and Reverend Joseph Lowery, and of so many nameless heroines and heroes from Argentina to Iceland. Their praises are often sung, and the kinds of courage, integrity, generosity of spirit, and vision they exhibited all matter, but I want to talk about another virtue we don’t think about much: it’s the one we call patience when we like it or it appears to be gentle, and stubbornness when we don’t or it doesn’t.

After all, Suu Kyi was steadfast during many years of house arrest and intimidation after a military junta stole the 1990 election she had won and only this year did the situation shift a little. The goals of the stubborn often seem impossible at inception, as did some of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, or for that matter the early nineteenth century abolitionist movement in the United States, which set out to eradicate the atrocity of slavery more than 30 years before victory—a lot faster than the contemporaneous women’s movement got basic rights like the vote. Change happens, but it can take decades; and it takes people who remain steadfast, patient (or stubborn) for those same decades, along with infusions of new energy.   

I suspect the steadfastness of the heroes of the great movements of our time came not only from facts but from faith. They had faith that their cause was just, that this was the right way to live on Earth, that what they did mattered, and they had those things decades before the results were in. You had to be unrealistic about the odds to go up against the Burmese generals or the Apartheid regime in South Africa or Jim Crow or 5,000 years of patriarchy or centuries of homophobia, and the unrealistic among us drew on their faith and did just that, with tremendous consequences.

Realism is overrated, but the fact is that the Occupy movement has already had extraordinary results. We changed the national debate early on and brought into the open what was previously hiding in plain sight: both the violence of Wall Street and the yearning for community, justice, truth, power, and hope that possesses most of the rest of us. We found out something that mattered about who we are: we found out just how many of us are furious about the debt peonage settled onto millions of “underwater” homeowners, people destroyed by medical debts, and students shackled by subprime educations that no future salaries will ever dig them out of.

And here was Occupy’s other signal achievement: we articulated, clearly, loudly, incontrovertably, how appalling and destructive the current economic system is. To name something is a powerful action. To speak the truth changes reality, and this has everything to do with why electoral politics runs the spectrum from euphemism and parallel-universe formulations to astonishing lies and complete evasions. Wily Occupy brought a Trojan horse loaded with truth to the citadel of Wall Street. Even the bronze bull couldn’t face that down.

Meeting the Possibilities Down the Road

A 10-year plan would function like a map: we could see where we had been, where we are, and where we want to go. In San Francisco, participants in the one-year anniversary events will burn student loan and mortgage contracts to symbolically free the prisoners of debt. In New York, Occupy Wall Street itself is focusing on debt strikes for the one-year anniversary. This September 17th, practical goals will be announced, a Debt Strikers Manual will debut—and who knows, in 10 years’ time some of those goals could even be fully realized.


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