Archives for November 2011

The power of discomfort

You’d think after all this time, I would know better than to read comments on YouTube. Most of the time, these things aren’t worth commenting on, but there’s something vital I feel people are missing when it comes to the Occupy movement. I keep seeing comments like this one, regarding a group of UC Davis students practicing civil disobedience by sitting peacefully on a sidewalk after being told to disperse by police officers: “Can somebody please tell me, how does sitting on your ass achieve social justice?”

Seriously? Didn’t you people ever watch Ghandi?

It’s a bit unbelievable, but I see things like this all over the internet these days, making it painfully clear that people don’t actually understand the point of protest, especially the kind of prolonged, non-violent protest being employed by the Occupy movement.

When a group of people want to air a grievance, especially with their government, the easiest thing to do is to sign a petition or write a letter to their legislators… maybe make a phone call for something a tad more confrontational. These are all comfortable options. Comfortable for everyone. We can feel that we’ve spoken up, and our legislators can listen (or pretend to listen) and then proceed with their day. It’s all very civilized, and incredibly easy to ignore, as soon as the moment has passed. Even a single march or protest is easy to gloss over in the hustle and bustle of daily life. At worst, it’s like a trip to the dentist for those who wield power—occasionally painful, but inevitably finite.

It’s the same for us regular folks, too. Most of us aren’t thinking about things like “freedom” or “justice” every moment of the day. Even those who are being constantly oppressed are still mainly concerned with day-to-day survival—putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. And people who are living comfortably are going to be even more eager to let uncomfortable thoughts fade away as quickly as possible.

The point of prolonged protest is to make us uncomfortable. It is intended to make it increasingly difficult for us to push aside the issues being raised, by becoming a constant, visible presence in our daily lives. It is supposed to be inconvenient, and not just for the institution(s) being protested against. It is intended to force all of us to think about these issues, including those of us who are affected by them but have not yet taken up the cause.

The Occupy movement comes out of a frustration with the fact that our comfortably accepted, polite procedures are no longer effective. Our votes are no longer effective. Our petitions, letters, and phone calls are no longer effective. We’ve become easy to ignore. By camping in a public park or sitting in the sidewalk, even after being told to leave by those to whom we’ve (wisely or not) granted authority, these protestors are forcing everyone around them to take notice—to spend at least a few moments of their day thinking about injustice in our society, in hopes that eventually, if they keep it up long enough, they’ll gain the kind of numbers that can’t be ignored by anyone, including those who benefit most from our deeply corrupt system.

The point of visibly and constantly occupying public spaces is to create something that can’t be comfortably or easily forgotten as soon as the moment has passed. And frankly, judging from the overreaction of quite a number of authorities, it’s working.

Me & Occupy Wall Street: three questions

Some stuff came up after my original statement yesterday that I think needs to be clarified. Some I’ve already addressed in comments on Facebook, like the fact that no, I don’t think OWS is about healthcare, except that it certainly can be, since the corporate greed & influence OWS is protesting is responsible for the power insurance companies wield over our legislators.

Here are three questions and answers, though, to really clarify my position:

1. Successful movements have leaders and clearly specific demands. How can you support something as chaotic as Occupy?

My mom and I often talk about how people’s greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses, and this applies to groups of people as well. Though the Occupy movement’s resistance to clear leadership makes it difficult for people (like the mainstream press) to find something easy to latch on to, and may create a sense of uneasiness or even danger for those of us conditioned to look to authorities for answers, it’s also what makes them so powerful and (more importantly) less vulnerable. If there is anything history has taught us, it’s that our leaders are corruptible. Even victorious revolutions ultimately fail to effect change when their leaders succumb to the same thirst for power that drove the regimes they sought to overthrow in the first place.

The strength of the Occupy movement is that it isn’t driven by a single ego, but rather by its participants as a whole. Does it make the movement more difficult to define? Absolutely. You can’t ask just one person in the Occupy movement what the group stands for, and expect to get the definitive answer. You have to take the time to listen to a group that is constantly, actively defining itself, and extrapolate from the din. It creates extra challenges within the movement as well, as Occupiers struggle to remain inclusive, even when faced with allies who might make them uncomfortable. But it also means that Occupy can’t be bought. And when a movement exists to oppose the political power of the richest people in the world, that’s really, really important.

2. Aren’t you just blaming other people for your problems?

No. I’m not blaming other people for my problems. I am angry because I see people in power deliberately putting up roadblocks to prevent me from solving them myself.

I love to work. Possibly to the extreme. In fact, as I’ve gotten into my forties, one of the most important things I’ve realized about myself is that “work” is the only thing I really find fun. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about thankless drudgery here (though I do my fair share—most jobs come with it, to some extent or another), but it’s been a relief to finally admit to myself that what I most value in life is the opportunity to do meaningful work, so much so that I often have difficulty enjoying leisurely pursuits. Even when I have a hobby, I’ll usually find a way to turn it into work, so that I can fully enjoy what I’m doing.

I don’t want handouts, and I don’t need someone to clear my path. I’m a tough cookie. I like work, and I thrive on opportunities for problem-solving. But when the cards are stacked to the extreme the way they are right now—when the game of life has become unwinnable unless you have the cheat codes—a thirst for problem-solving ceases to be rewarding or even tolerable. And that makes me angry.

3. If this is so important, why aren’t you out there?

This is very simple. I am not out there, because I’m not brave enough. Though I feel strongly that our society must change, I’m not yet willing to risk what I have for the greater good. I’m not willing to risk my job, my loved ones, or my physical well-being. I’m not willing to brave the cold for days with a bunch of strangers. I’m not willing to to be vulnerable to chance. I’m not willing to risk the comfort I have for the sake of others, or even for myself. Despite my anger and disillusionment, I still feel, on some level, that I have too much to lose.

What will it take for me and others like me to decide we are brave after all? What will we have to lose before we finally take to the streets with the rest of them? I don’t know. But I expect that will be an interesting day.

Meanwhile, I must express my gratitude to those who are brave enough to stand up for all the rest of us, putting their bodies and lives on the line to stand up to the handful of powerful people who really run this country.