This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you (or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.
Of course, "camped out" doesn't quite catch the spirit of the moment, because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of the way we have awoken.
When civil society sleeps, we're just a bunch of individuals absorbed in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere, when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities are terrified. They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for violence and for hypocrisy.
Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall this item included in a bald list of events that night: "tear-gassing the kitchen tent." Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be attacked with chemical weapons?
Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as disposable, but not usually so literally.
Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began. The response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them foolish. After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they'd try to soothe it back to sleep.) "Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can't arrest an idea!" said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.
Last Wednesday in San Francisco, 100 activists occupied the Bank of America, even erecting a symbolic tent inside it in which a dozen activists immediately took refuge. At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, setting up tents on any grounds was forbidden, so the brilliant young occupiers used clusters of helium balloons to float tents overhead, a smart image of defiance and sky-high ambition. And the valiant UC Davis students, after several of them were pepper-sprayed in the face while sitting peacefully on the ground, evicted the police, chanting, "You can go! You can go!" They went.
Occupy Oakland has been busted up three times and still it thrives. To say nothing of the other 1,600 occupations in the growing movement.
Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, once said, "You can crush the flowers, but you can't stop the spring."
The busting of Zuccotti Park and the effervescent, ingenious demonstrations elsewhere are a reminder that, despite the literal "occupations" on which this protean movement has been built, it can soar as high as those Berkeley balloons and take many unexpected forms. Another OWS sign, "The beginning is near," caught the mood of the moment. Flowers seem like the right image for this uprising led by the young, those who have been most crushed by the new economic order, and who bloom by rebelling and rebel by blooming.
The Best and the Worst
Now world-famous Zuccotti Park is just a small concrete and brown marble-paved scrap of land surrounded by tall buildings. Despite the "Occupy Wall Street" label, it's actually two blocks north of that iconic place. It's rarely noted that the park is within sight of, and kitty-corner to, Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers crumbled.
What was born and what died that day a decade ago has everything to do with what's going on in and around the park, the country, and the world now. For this, al-Qaeda is remarkably irrelevant, except as the outfit that long ago triggered an incident that instantly released both the best and the worst in our society.
The best was civil society. As I wandered in the Zuccotti Park area last week, I was struck again by how much what really happened on the morning of September 11th has been willfully misremembered. It can be found nowhere in the plaques and monuments. Firemen more than deserve their commemorations, but mostly they acted in vain, on bad orders from above, and with fatally flawed communications equipment. The fact is: the people in the towers and the neighborhood—think of them as civil society coming together in crisis—largely rescued themselves, and some of them told the firefighters to head down, not up.
We need memorials to the coworkers who carried their paraplegic accountant colleague down 69 flights of stairs while in peril themselves; to Ada Rosario-Dolch, the principal who got all of the High School for Leadership, a block away, safely evacuated, while knowing her sister had probably been killed in one of those towers; to the female executives who walked the blind newspaper seller to safety in Greenwich Village; to the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93, who were the only ones to combat terrorism effectively that day; and to countless, nameless others. We need monuments to ourselves, to civil society.