Occupy Wall Street Teaches Purpose in the Process

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As I begin a new semester of school, somehow the universe has aligned the key elements of my studies in a brilliant array. The overarching Theory of Change for last Spring’s work in Peacebuilding at the NYU Center for Global Affairs was that, in peacebuilding and in life, the process of something can be equally or more valuable than the outcome. It’s a philosophy I’ve always liked, but in my course work I was pushed to real-ize it.

Now with that concept fully digested, I’ve begun an independent study in the Theory of Nonviolent Change. And just was I was crafting my study plan – pulling reading on the movements of the 70s and the Arab Spring – a whirlwind of nonviolent social change erupted in New York City, four blocks from school, at Occupy Wall Street.

In its second week, the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon (demonstration doesn’t do it justice) is real-izing the lessons of Peacebuilding and Social Change theory in an inspiring way. As the Epoch Times pointed out, a true community has grown up in protest of the status quo and in favor of recreating our democracy from the ground up. Occupy Wall Street has built a village in Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park, the corner of Liberty Street and Broadway), complete with a kitchen, sleeping areas, art spaces, meeting spaces, a group schedule, and the governing structure of the General Assembly. With no designated leadership, the messy, difficult, and exhilarating process of direct democracy (as opposed to the representative democracy seen in most governments) leads the community and the development of protest demands and actions.

Currently, the community has not yet decided upon singular demands. Their message is developing, and is to many, including The Economist, unclear. Even participants have had trouble identifying one clear goal or “ask” of the powers they’re (we’re) challenging. But what is clear: something larger is going on. (And The Economist is missing the point.)

I pretty quickly abandoned the library for field research this week, and I’ve already found a clear theme in both my interviews and the process I’ve observed at Occupy Wall Street. The participants have no intention of leaving the NYC Financial District without formulating and achieving some concrete goals. But what’s more important than the goals of the demonstration is the demonstration of the goals. A majority of Americans are unsatisfied with our democratic process, and at Occupy Wall Street we’re learning how to reimagine it. The community development exercise and experiment of Occupy Wall Street is educating participants, passersby, and observers around the globe on alternative ways to distribute power, organize decision making, and achieve consensus. This democracy is far, far more dynamic than ‘one person, one vote.’ And when we all agree that our current process is yielding unsatisfying, and frankly unsustainable outcomes,  learning a new process might be more important than passing a Millionaire’s Tax or Ending the Fed. When Wall Street is returned to its normal occupants, those of us currently convening there will take what we have experienced – and the hope, passion, knowledge, and skills we have generated here – to other arenas of power and larger social structures. We will leave this camp, where the progressive stack and the People’s Mic amplify the voices our society traditionally silences, and we will return to our families, classrooms, workplaces, governments, and communities with new ideas about how to interact and to organize. We will have learned new social rules that promote egalitarianism and equity. We will have new conversations with our friends, our partners, our coworkers, and our lawmakers. And we will have awakened from the nightmare of There Is No Alternative. We will be ready to build the American Dream.

It seems to me that this process is the most important thing we could do to change our county and our world.

The study I’m pursuing through December asks how and why nonviolent movements succeed in social change. Data from a journal at MIT shows that nonviolent campaigns are significantly more effective than violent ones. And indeed, the Occupiers of Wall Street have been quite clear that this is a nonviolent movement. The New York Police Department has not spared the group its monopoly on the use of force, but nonviolent reactions are a strategic choice for the community. It’s widely recognized that they won’t attract support or legitimacy by participating in NYPD’s violence, and that it would be counter to their aims of bringing more, not less, peace to the country they love.

I have confidence that there is much to be learned from this experience in answer to my research questions. I can’t post it all here – I have to save something for class – but be sure there are more discussions of this fascinating process to come. Explanations of the tools I’ve mentioned are vital, and a deeper look at the philosophy is inevitable. I hope you’ll join me in the conversation online, and I hope, if you’re anywhere near NYC or anywhere that needs some social change, that you’ll join me in the streets.

Tax the rich, feed the poor, end the deaths, stop the wars, occupy Wall Street.

In Peace and Solidarity,

Talia

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