Occupy’s Legacy

by: Tara Ruttenberg

“So what do you think of Occupy DC?” I turn around to meet Keith, a youthful resident occupier smiling at me as I stop to snap a photo on my walk-through visit to the McPherson Square Occupy camp last week. My response: “You guys are badass; I think America has finally found something we can be proud of.”

I escaped the US six years ago – a political refugee by my own standards –, increasingly disgusted by a nation’s inability to see through the smoke and mirrors of a once-celebrated representative democracy, a fantasy land where elected officials are responsive to citizen demands and a vote actually means something to someone, somewhere over the rainbow. I grew progressively insolent toward US plutocracy, the associated power and global influence of such a system determined by corporate wealth and special interests, fueled by fear-mongering propaganda and pop-culture overload to numb a nation and protect a comfortable status quo of culturally ingrained complacency.

At the time, nobody was occupying anything. My discontent felt lonely as mainstream America fell into the trap of hypnotizing media campaigns that succeeded in duping an entire nation into accept anything pushed from the powers that be – everything from illegitimate wars to endless growth strategies, cutting welfare programs to fouling the ecosystem.

Aware of my own overwhelming impotence within the entrenched system, I gave up and got the hell out. I didn’t wait for the capitalist economy to fall asunder as it is wont to do, laying bare the stark struggle between capital and labor. I didn’t wait until I couldn’t get a job despite an expensive graduate degree, now with tens of thousands in unpaid student loans, no health insurance and terrible credit; I sought greener pastures south of the border and started surfing instead.

Distancing myself from all things American, ashamed and bewildered by my former fellow citizens for electing a President like George W. Bush, not once but twice, I rebelled to the extreme – I started reading Marx, learning about socialism (which, of course, was a concept completely left out of my heavy economics-based education at Georgetown University’s prestigious Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service), and siding with Rousseau over Locke by developing sincere admiration for people’s movements and experiments with direct democracy, where corporations and wealthy elites could no longer use their paid-off puppet representatives to coopt a political system created for the people, by the people.

Stepping outside the confines of what I had been told to believe, I found that outside the US, socialism isn’t a four-letter word, and ideas like universal healthcare, government-subsidized higher education and high taxes for the uber-wealthy are not just Tea Party poster fodder or faraway dreams of socially stigmatized far-left liberals. Countries like the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, and Canada, to name a few, are more socialist than not, and contrary to popular (read: ignorant) US belief, their economies and societies have not spiraled into the abyss of communist darkness; in fact, they are among the very countries best-positioned to rescue the US from its predicted default if it should come to that. And I digress. The point, however, is that my once-considered ‘anti-American’ socio-political tendencies have finally found resonance where I least expected: in the cities of my own native country under the leaderless leadership of Occupy.

I have been following the Occupy movement since learning of Occupy Wall Street on my Facebook newsfeed while working abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. Inspired by the movement’s rhetoric and demonstrated practices of consensus-based decision-making and direct democracy in action, it was the first time I had actually felt a sense of pride and patriotism for a country I once called home (I remember feeling something similar when we elected Obama, but that elation proved short-lived as we collectively realized how impenetrable the plutocratic decision-making architecture had become). I envisioned myself on the first plane to JFK to join the group in Manhattan, and was elated to continue reading about Occupy camps popping up in 100+ cities around the country. I had written-off Americans as complacent (“Anything but face the emptiness and acknowledge one's complicity therein”, in the words of philosopher Phil Rockstroh) and powerless in the face of corporate tyranny, special-interest lobby groups and unresponsive democracy. I thought protest in the US to be a thing of the past, when civil rights leaders and anti-Vietnam war hippies like my parents actually cared and had the courage to do something about it. ‘Shock-and-awe’ is how I might explain my initial reaction to Occupy; now after two months of the movement’s continuous protest, significant mainstream and social media attention, and now even in the face of police-state style government crackdowns against Occupy camps, I feel a sense of validation that even self-appointed political refugee ex-pats like me can be proud of a nation we had previously abandoned and blacklisted as beyond all hope for redemption.

Occupy critics want the movement to have leaders, put forth a platform of demands (but what is it that they WANT? is a common critique) and elect political representatives. They want to coopt and bureaucratize the movement in order to pacify dissent, which is what many argue happened to the environmental and social movements of decades past. They want the movement to fade away as a mere blemish in history so that the safety of the status quo and the interests of the 1% stay intact before their TV-comatose zombie followers wake up and smell the free Ben & Jerry’s at their nearby Occupy camp.

Occupy supporters have similar concerns about the staying power of the movement, worried that if the government succeeds in shutting down the protest camps, or if media attention strays to the next marketable story, that the movement will have no further impact other than being vaguely remembered as a few thousand angry Americans teaming up with homeless people to camp out in makeshift city communes.

Though I only Occupied DC for an hour on a chilly autumn evening, Keith’s iconic smile stays with me. Now that I have had time to step back, I can interpret that one look as the face of the movement; a symbol of the apprehension many feel while considering that although they might not be entirely sure of how their actions will play out in the long run, they find motivation in knowing that they are playing an active role in standing up for the lot of the many against a system that glorifies the corrupt, powerful few.

While we cannot predict the longevity or political weight of the Occupy movement, the reality is that much of its job has already been done: allowing what’s really wrong with America to occupy center stage, engaging the 99% through media and social networking, inspiring us all that the power of protest lives on, opening a few more eyes to the ills of corporate and special-interest control of government, exposing the fallacy of the supposedly infallible system espoused as US-brand representative liberal democracy, and most importantly, reminding Americans that the way it is isn’t the way it has to be. The hard part, however, will be convincing the 99% of the 99% to get off the couch, out of their cubicle, away from Walmart’s falling prices, and actually do something about it.

this article was originally published in the Peace and Conflict Monitor. November 2011. http://www.monitor.upeace.org/archive.cfm?id_article=841