Friday I spent most of my day at the OccupyMN protest in downtown Minneapolis. My main goal was to get a feel for the movement so many Pagans are taking part in or at least sympathetic towards. The movement tells us they are different than any previous protest and they are unhappy with how the media “just doesn’t get it.” They can’t be classified, they explain. They don’t have leaders and spokespersons, they have no firm goals as of yet, just a firm conviction that our country’s process is so broken it can no longer function. They speak of suffering, feeling divorced from power, marginalized. They are an experiential movement. The magic is in being there and adding your essence to the mix. As I’m part of an experiential religion family, Paganism, I thought I’d look at what was happening through the lens of my religious background.
I can see why the mainstream media doesn’t “get it.” From my observations, the Occupy movement isn’t about demands or slogans or political parties, it’s about manifesting the society they wish existed. Similar to Pagan festivals, OccupyMN is creating a (temporary) healthy, functioning, caring community in Government Plaza. The media has been asking them “What are your demands? What are your solutions?” The solutions they propose are being worked out in real time, right before our very eyes. They aren’t writing them down on a website, or articulating it to the media in neat soundbites, they are demonstrating solutions by living them. They aren’t protestors, they are demonstrators – those who present by experiments, examples, or practical application. Also similar to Pagan festivals, the real question is, can such a community, and the solutions they demonstrate that work so beautifully during a short period of time on a small scale, apply to large scale groups like an entire nation?
Some of the attendees are protestors in the traditional sense of the word. They are unhappy with specific policy areas and want to change them using established methods. They want lower college tuition prices, or a reversal of a Supreme court decision, or for candidates to only use public financing. These are small tweeks to the present system. What the core of the Occupy movement, the ones who camp out and devote themselves wholeheartedly, seem to want is wholesale changes to the system itself. Not the policies, but the process. I’m not saying the movement wants to overthrow the government and turn us into Cuba or Canada. But they want a revolution to take place. A more open system, a less crushing process, for us all to live and resolve conflicts in.
When they speak about the 99% and the 1% it is tempting, for them and those of us trying to understand, to frame it in terms of money. Money often does equate to power, which generates more money, which helps concentrate power further. I think it’s more accurate to think of the 1% as representing those who control our present system. Which is exactly opposite of how this country was set up to operate, at least on paper. I’m not sure if there was ever a golden age of the United States where the citizens held the reigns of power instead of just the illusion of power, but it is a myth worth fighting for.
Now that we have that long intro out of the way, let me walk you through my day so you can get a feel for what I experienced during my time in Government Plaza.
I arrived at Government Plaza just before noon. It was warm, very breezy, and a threat of storm hung in the air. Already the plaza was filling up with attendees, media, and people on their lunch break gawking. If you haven’t been to Government Plaza, it is set up as a circular space around a circular fountain. A drum was playing and a line of demonstrators were dancing and chanting as they walked around the circumference of the circle. The physical space, a circle, does create a different feeling than any other space shape . People naturally look inward when they are in a circular space. A circle, as the Arthurian tales tell us, is an egalitarian shape. Other than architects, Feng shui devotees, and Pagans, I don’t think people consider how much physical space impacts the emotions, energy, success of a group of people.
The mood was tentative when I first arrived. People were unsure of what to do and if this was something they wanted to be part of. They were ready to take part in something, but were unclear what they should be doing. The facilitators were clearly working their butts off, creating spaces on the outer edge for medical help, donations to be collected, food and water distributed, and media concerns. They were getting garbage disposal, better wifi, and sleeping arrangements taken care of and starting to worry about rain. One of the facilitators expressed surprise that the crowd, now swelling to about 300, was already so large. It was only 1pm and set up wasn’t complete. A community was clearly taking shape.
I walked over to the area where food was given out freely to whom ever stepped up to the table. “Can I help you?” asks the young lady behind the table to a man who has the telltale signs of being homeless. He looks tired, he’s carrying his belongings in a bag which he guards carefully, and is surprised that someone is not only talking to him, but looking him in the eye. “Can I have this?” He points to some apples. “Of course, here let me help you. Do you want water? How about some cookies?” She loads him up with food and water and he walks away, clearly moved more by how she treated him than by the food.
The food is a gift. Reese Hagy, who is part of the food sub-committee for OccupyMN, said, “All of [the food] is donation based from businesses and individuals. We don’t prepare food here, just distribute it.” He says they plan to have food available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for as long as OccupyMN is in Government Plaza. “The donations are flowing in.” Hagy said, “but we can use more. More self contained food, not things that have to be prepared. We can’t have cookstoves or open flames.” OccupyMn says people can donate money through the website, they can drop off food donations on site, or they can arrange to have a business deliver food to the plaza.
Making sure no one goes hungry is just one of the ways the OccupyMN community demonstrates the ethics it wishes our society was built on. Have some food? Have some money? Let’s pool our resources, bring it to where it is needed, and give it to anyone who wants it, no questions asked. No requirements. I love the simplicity of it, but I wonder how practical it is. How much of our current system, with permits and food safety inspections and lawsuits, would we have to dismantle to be able to do something so simple as making sure no one goes hungry?
Basic medical care is another service provided by volunteers at OccupyMN. I was talking with a reporter from another news agency when an older male suddenly sat down and looked faint. A medical volunteer assisted him, taking his blood pressure, and checking his eyes. The reporter looked over at the medical volunteer and said to me, “How long until one of those volunteers gets sued?” It’s a valid question and one Pagan festivals have struggled with. It’s compassionate to have at least a baseline level of care on site, especially for people who can’t afford to go to the hospital for something minor, but our entire system is layered with impediments to implementing compassion. Why? There is serious money, which means power, in healthcare. Large student loans, insurance, bureaucracy. All methods of walling away individuals from being able to act under their own authority.
By about 1pm I noticed that the attendees, who up until this point seemed a bit lost, were starting to talk to each other. The icebreaker was the signs. People carried all kinds of homemade signs while others shared the materials to make more. Demonstrators walked around reading signs and striking up conversations. Others plopped down on the ground in groups and brainstormed ideas for what their sign should say as they passed markers to each other. Most signs describe what they considered broken, “Middle class enslaved by debt” or “End the Fed.” These are protest signs about specific policies. Some signs are vision statements about the society they wish to see manifest, “People over profits” A few signs advocated violence “If they say Let them eat cake, then we say Off with their heads” and “Death to bankers” but those were a minority. I was disappointed people with violence promoting signs weren’t challenged by their fellow Occupiers, yet those signs point to an undercurrent within the movement – that systemic change cannot happen without violence because those in power will not “go quietly into the night.” (For a view of various signs and demonstrators, see “Who are the 99%?” )
The signs are more than an icebreaker, they are an outward manifestation of each person’s individual Will. They create opportunities for discussion. I noticed some people changing their sign or writing a new one as a result of a conversation. This exchange was building group cohesion and focusing their Will into more and more common areas. It was something you could feel in the air and I expect it will intensify as the protest goes on. Will the difference between protestors and demonstrators become more pronounced and will we be able to see that difference in the signs they choose to carry? Or are the signs distracting us from reading the message in the actions of the demonstrators?
At about 1:45 the crowd starting passing the word,”We’re going to march to the Fed at 2[pm]!” The Federal Reserve is several blocks away from Government Plaza and a march wasn’t on the schedule. No permit, either. What would the police do? Would this spark arrests? Remember the undercurrent that peaceful measures may not work? While most are prepared to work with city officials, a minority feel negotiating rules with officials defeats the intent of ‘occupying’ the plaza. How can you dismantle a system created by the powerful when you play by their rules? So far, the police presence had been heavy, but relaxed. The idea to march on the Federal Reserve was a natural expression of the protest movement, but also a test of boundaries and the police’s reaction.
The first surge of the group went forward towards the street. The police, on Segways, zoomed in front of them. Not to block the path of OccupyMn protestors, but to block traffic so they could safely walk down the street. At each intersection, police stopped traffic. As the protestors walked past they said, “Thank you, officer.” The police politely nodded back. More demonstrators joined the march as they realized the police would not block them, but would assist them. A protestor walking next to me remarked, “Man, is this the same police that cracked heads at the RNC in ’08?” The police appear to be going out of their way to avoid escalation.
We reached the Federal building and chants of “We are the 99%” continued for several minutes. A young male stood up on a concrete planter edge and began to speak. Others, men and women, would also speak. This would be my first experience with what is known as the ‘human mic’ and I found it disturbing. I realize why it is used. In large crowds, when the speaker doesn’t have access to bullhorns or an amplification system, it allows people in the back of the crowd to hear what the speaker is saying. This is how it works. The speaker says a short phrase and the crowd repeats it back. It works and it is practical. I find it’s use, especially in smaller crowds or when the speaker isn’t legally barred from using a bullhorn, disturbing because it also creates coercive conformity of thought. When you listen to a speaker, you take in the information in a more neutral way. You hear the words and then decide if you agree with them or not. When you hear and then repeat words, you bypass that process. By saying the words, you lean more heavily towards automatic agreement and internalization of the message than you do just listening to them. They become your words. Moreover, when a large crowd says something in unison, it creates an atmosphere that makes it difficult to disagree. None of this happens consciously, but it happens. It works so well because the crowd never realizes this is happening. Religious groups and the military all use these techniques to coerce conformity of thought. I don’t think the speakers and facilitators of OccupyMN have any of these intentions, but the results are the same. What concerns me more, is this technique is used in the General Assembly, where the decision making process for the Occupy movement happens. It is supposed to be a consensus based process, but if the human mic is used, that process is hopelessly compromised.
After realizing that the people inside the Federal Reserve couldn’t see out the window, somewhat blunting the purpose for the march, a person in the crowd suggested moving to where the windows weren’t so heavily tinted. This brings up other points about the group’s view of an idealized society – don’t hide problems, make adjustments as needed, and anyone can speak and offer ideas. If they are sensible, the group will act on them. We moved to the location suggested and very soon some curious employees of the Federal Reserve were looking out the windows while the Occupiers chanted, “Join us!” Drums played, people danced, and people spoke, if they felt so moved.
For a while it appeared the group would decide to stay at the Federal Reserve, but a call went up to go back to the Plaza, and off we went. Complete with police escort. There was an opening celebration to attend, a planning meeting to care for those who are camping overnight, more speakers, and the General Assembly. I walked back to the square with Tyler Nord, a young man who says he was raised on a farm and knows the value of food, “Those in power discount the impact of food inflation.” He went on to to talk about how difficult that made the average person’s life and how powerless people were to change the situation. The farmers couldn’t change it, the stores couldn’t change it, and the customers couldn’t change it. He organized the walk to the Fed and takes part in the Occupy movement as he sees both the Federal Reserve and concepts such as ‘corporate personhood’ as tools for how the powerful maintain control. “It may seem like a small change, but if we could reverse corporate personhood, it would have a huge impact on our country. It would start to remove money as a driving influence and allow people to have a say again.” Tyler was tired and hoarse from speaking. Yet his step was light and he carried his backpack with ease, eager to get back to the square and his community.
I left before the General Assembly got started, but was able to watch it on the livefeed. The guidelines for consensus based decision making were outlined and the discussion got underway. Everyone was welcome to voice their thoughts, offer ideas, and only when consensus was reached, was an idea implemented. It can be a slow, maddening, and irritating process, but consensus based decisions are fair and usually well-thought out.
The solutions OccupyMN are coming up with in their created community, like food and healthcare distribution and their version of consensus decision making, are simple and straightforward. The messages and demands aren’t printed on their signs, they are written in their actions. Care for each other. See a need and fulfill it. Listen to and respect one another. Don’t use more than you need, but take what you need without shame. Make decisions based on the good of the community. These are all excellent ideas for how a healthy community can function and we should examine them carefully. What I don’t know, is how to incorporate them into a system of government.