“Every decision you make is an exercise of your power.”
My friends in Zuccotti Park — A.K.A. “Liberty Square” — the location of the “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement, would seem to disagree. What power? Most of the people that I have met through the weeks of Wall Street protests tell similar stories of despair over losing jobs or having piles of student debt with little voice in the matter. But “personal power” was the message from the facilitator of the Civil Disobedience Training that I attended on September 16th, the day before the protest began.
There were, maybe, 40 people there. We began the day as strangers but were forced to work together as “buddies” during the role-playing scenarios. We each took turns playing either a protester or a police officer and being forced to decide, in the heat of the moment, if we were willing to get arrested to allow others to escape. The facilitator kept repeating the same line: “Every decision you make is an exercise of your power.” Before she could fully explain what she meant, a woman in an all black dress entered the room and offered us the leftover dinner from an “Anarchist Wedding”. As we munched down on the vegan Swedish meatballs and gluten-free spaghetti, we made sure that every out-of-towner had a warm home to sleep in before the protests began in earnest and we would sleep on the streets of the Financial District until “our one demand was met”.
And when September 17th arrived, we put on our layers of clothing, camping gear, and courage and headed to Wall Street. There was an overwhelming presence of young city rats, hipsters, dreadlocks, and anger. We all started to walk towards Wall Street, chanting in unison “Banks get bailouts! We get soldout!” only to run into police blockades and relocate to what’s now being referred to as Liberty Square. The spirit was high but the numbers were low; estimates say that less than a thousand people showed up.
Now, almost three weeks into the protest, the “Occupy Wall Street Protest” movement has grown and expanded in solidarity from coast to coast. I headed down to Liberty Square after work earlier this week to check out the afterglow of the campus walkout. I joined in a meditation circle and tried to find center, but it was not easy with so much talking happening around me. “The government doesn’t give a fuck!” “Capitalism failed us!” “Let’s throw donuts over the Brooklyn Bridge!” Even in my moment of Zen, I couldn’t help but agree with the frustration, resentment, and righteousness. After all, many “peaceful” protesters have been arrested for unjust reasons and the mainstream media coverage has been slanted at best. Before I could get another thought in, a young Hispanic man that I had met at the Civil Disobedience training spoke through the loud mic: “Today we proved our power in numbers but our power must come from love and respect, even for the NYPD.”
To me, “Occupy Wall Street” can never change the system unless we change ourselves. It is about believing in the worth and power of the individual and having faith in a world where the individual can achieve as much of their potential as possible. It’s about the books that people give away to the “Wall Street Library”, the tireless drum circles that keep morale high, the free medical care, and even the leftovers from the “Anarchist Wedding.” It’s not about 99% vs. 1%. I finally understood what the facilitator meant by “personal power”. “Occupy Wall Street” is a movement towards changing what it fundamentally means to be a citizen and a human being.
Photos by Brian Stollery