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How the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street Started With One Tunisian Man

At this moment in history, occupation should be everyone's occupation.

| Tue Oct. 18, 2011 1:53 PM PDT

Later in August came the website started by a 28-year-old New York City activist, we are the 99 percent, to which hundreds daily now submit photographs of themselves. Each of them also testifies to the bleak conditions they find themselves in, despite their hard work and educations which often left them in debt, despite the promises dangled before them that (if they played the game right) they'd be safe, housed, and living a part of that oversold dream.

It's a website of unremitting waking nightmares, economic bad dreams that a little wealth redistribution would eliminate (even without eliminating the wealthy). The people contributing aren't asking for luxuries. They would simply prefer not to be worked to death like so many nineteenth-century millworkers, nor to have their whole world come crashing down if they get sick. They want to survive with dignity, and their testimony will break your heart.

Mohammed Bouazizi, dead at 26, you to whom I'm writing, here is one of the recent posts at that site:

"I am 26 years old. I am $134,000 in debt. I started working at 14 years old, and have worked Full-Time since I turned 20. I work in I.T. and got laid off in July 2011. I was LUCKY, and found a job RIGHT AWAY: with a Pay Cut and MORE HOURS. Now, I just found out that my Dad got laid off last week - after 18 YEARS with the same employer. I have debilitating (SP! Sorry!) O.C.D. and can't take time away from work to get treatment because I can't afford my mortgage payments if I don't go to work, and I'm afraid I'll lose my NEW job if I take time off!!! WE ARE THE 99%."

Some of the people at we are the 99% offer at least partial views of their faces, but the young IT worker quoted above holds a handwritten letter so long that it obscures his face. Poverty obscures your face too. It obscures your talents, potential, even your distinctive voice, and if it goes deep enough, it eradicates you by degrees of hunger and degradation. Poverty is a creation of the systems against which people all over the planet are revolting this wild year of 2011. The Arab Spring, after all, was an economic revolt. What were all those dictatorships and autocracies for, if not to squeeze as much profit as possible out of subjugated populations—profit for rulers, profit for multinational corporations, profit for that 1%.

"We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers," was the slogan of the first student protest called in Spain this year. Your beautiful generation, Mohammed Bouazizi, has arisen and is bringing the rest of us along, even here in the United States.

 

The People's Microphone

Its earliest critics seemed to think that Occupy Wall Street was a lobbying group whose chosen task on this planet should be to create a package of realistic demands. In other words, they were convinced that the occupiers should become supplicants, asking the powerful for some kind of handout like college debt forgiveness. They were suggesting that a dream as wide as the sky be stuffed into little bottles and put up for sale. Or simply smashed.

In the same way, they wanted this movement to hurry up and appoint leaders, so that there would be someone to single out and investigate, pick off, or corrupt. At heart, however, this is a leaderless movement, an anarchist movement, catalyzed by the grace of civil society and the hard work of the collective. The Occupy movement—like so many movements around the world now—is using general assemblies as its form of protest and process. Its members are not facing the authorities, but each other, coming to know themselves, trying to give rise to the democracy they desire on a small scale rather than merely railing against its absence on a large scale.

These are the famous Occupy general assemblies in which decisions are made by consensus and, in the absence of amplification (by order of the New York City police), the people's mike is used: those assembled repeat what is said as it's said, creating a human megaphone effect. This is accompanied by a small vocabulary of hand gestures, which help people participate in the complex process of a huge group having a conversation.

In other words, the process is also the goal: direct democracy. No one can hand that down to you. You live direct democracy in that moment when you find yourself participating in civil society as a citizen with an equal voice. Put another way, the Occupiers are not demanding that something be given to them but formulating something new. That it involves no technology, not even bullhorns, is itself remarkable in this wired era. It's just passionate people together—and then Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, text messages, emails, and online sites like this one spread the word, along with some print media, notably the Occupied Wall Street Journal.

The beauty and the genius of this movement in this moment is that it has found a way to define its needs and desires without putting limits on them that would automatically exclude so many. In doing so, it has spoken to nearly all of us.

There is the terrible rage at economic injustice that is shared by college students looking at a future of debt and overwork, as well as those who couldn't afford college in the first place, by working people struggling ever harder for less, by the many who have no jobs and few prospects, by people forced out of their homes by the games banks play with mortgages and profits, and by everyone the catastrophe that is healthcare in this country has affected. And by the rest of us, furious on their behalf (and on our own).

And then there is the joyous hope that things could actually be different. That hope has been fulfilled a little in the way that an open-ended occupation has survived four weeks and more and turned into hundreds of Occupy actions around the country and marches in almost 1,000 cities around the world last Sunday, from Sydney to Tokyo to Santa Rosa. It speaks for so many; it speaks for the 99%; and it speaks clearly, so clearly that an ex-Marine showed up with a hand-lettered sign that said, "2nd time I've fought for my country, 1st time I've known my enemy."

The climate change movement showed up at Occupy Wall Street, too. What's blocking action on climate change is what's blocking action on all the other issues that matter: it would cut into profits. Never mind the deep future, not when what's at stake is quarterly earnings.

A dozen years ago, after the wildly successful revolt against neoliberal economic policy in Seattle, the slogan that stuck around was: "Another World Is Possible." I was never sure about that one because in crucial places and ways that other world is already here. In a YouTube video of the New York occupation, however, I watched an old woman in a straw hat say, "We're fighting for a society in which everyone is important." What a beautiful summation! Could any demand be clearer than that? And could the ways in which people have no value under our current economic regime be more obvious?

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