When I was at Zucotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street protest is based, one of my favorite signs read, “The Message is in the Medium.” Central to the movement’s message are its calls for more direct democracy, which it uses to sharpen, focus and revel in its diversity of opinions that stem from participants’ varied backgrounds. In the General Assembly, ideas don’t come solely from the left, nor do they come from just one sector of the left.
Among the most prevalent critiques of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is a self-indulgent, angry roar: There is no list of demands, no specific aims, just a loose, leaderless collection of frustrated individuals. Not only is this inaccurate (we can visit Occupywallst.org for a list of grievances as well as the forums for several proposed demands), but it also fails to recognize the meaning behind this kind of howl and misses the driving force, the pulse that lies at the heart of the protests.
The movement’s power does not lie solely in its potential to demand reform from the government, but it also arises from its demand for citizen consensus and action and a government in which that action can have an impact.
Every evening, the protestors meet in a General Assembly. They discuss whether to pursue reform only through governmental channels or to forge and renew alternative pathways. They use the “people’s microphone” — a system in which listeners repeat the speaker’s words so all those present can hear when megaphones are not allowed by the police — to discuss whether to use that system. They discuss whether a Warren Buffett tax is enough change.
As participants in the General Assembly, we were warned about grassroots movements such as the Tea Party being co-opted by special interests groups. We discussed overturning the Citizens United v. F.E.C. Supreme Court ruling and the advantages of working through government channels to make the government more transparent and more accountable.
Central to our arguments might be the importance of divorcing government and corporate power or perhaps the need for greater equality; the movement undeniably contains components of leftist thought. This kind of discussion and decision-making is not only encouraged but also necessary to the movement.
Here we get to the heart of why the protests are so important: The occupations — complete with heated conversations, communal libraries, slogans on signs and consensus — aim to repair and rejuvenate the public sphere and the power of citizens. Our complaint is not against all corporations; it is against the enmeshment of the corporation in the government, which we see so clearly in the corporate lobby — an expression of political opinion that today seems so much more powerful than yours or mine.
Occupy Wall Street works to rectify this and other such inequalities by revitalizing citizen action. The call is not for communism but for civilian voices to be taken seriously and civilian action embraced. By occupying, we are not just exercising our right to free speech; we are attempting create a public sphere in which citizens can both spark and guide government action.
In most nascent movements, contribution and engagement are important in the beginning — they allow vocal leaders to emerge — but quickly become less and less vital. The Occupy Wall Street movement, on the other hand, is horizontal, often chaotic and fundamentally democratic, and, as such, it calls for each individual to constantly direct it, continually contribute and remain alert. It demands our engagement and simultaneously allows us to develop the skill and sense of responsibility that is necessary for a functional direct democracy.
In the simplest sense, the occupations empower us in ways we should have never forgotten after 1968. When you speak before the General Assembly and hear your voice amplified by the voices of a thousand others, you understand the effect that your thoughts can and should have. The people’s microphone and the consensus-building process remind us of the weight of our words and ideas: They show us a community in which those are valued, heard and acted upon. We create the community we want within the occupation. In doing so, we train ourselves to extend that community beyond Zucotti Park. There is a giddy feeling that washes over you when you raise your hands high above your head in agreement with the speaker, and, with the rest of the community, your fingers flicker like flames: We agree.
The message is in the medium. In other words, the movement actuates its values simply by existing, building and functioning democratically. We want a society more like the one we are building in our occupations: one in which our words in matter and our dialogue can be fruitful, one that is more egalitarian, more generous, more inspiring and more beautiful.