06 October 2011

This is What Democracy Looks Like

Despite the early, and largely continued, media blackout, I've been following the Occupy Wall Street movement for a couple weeks now, anxiously looking for updates about their progress, and holding on to a quiet and deep hope that the movement took hold.  Truly, it has been too long that the elite 1% of wealth holders in this country ran our government with their money; it has been too long that the remaining 99% of this country has been silenced, stripped of resources, removed from their homes, forced into indentured servitude in the form of debt, and denied human rights.  The revolution has been a long time coming, and the first leaks of information about Occupy Wall Street made me start dreaming again of what this country that I love could be.

Soon, the movement did begin to spread.  Occupy Together was born, and Occupations began popping up all over the country.  (There is even planning happening in my neck of the woods to start an Occupy Carbondale!)  When I found OccupySTL, my heart longed to be with them.  I felt compelled to participate.

And I was lucky enough to be able to attend the protest on October 5, 2011 with two friends and my partner, who joined me for the two hours drive from Carbondale, IL, to St. Louis, MO.

When we arrived at Kierner Park around 4.45pm, there didn't seem to be many people - only about 20 or so holding the space.  Their set-up was impressive, and well-organized, though, and not long after entering the park, someone greeted us, took our donations of water, flashlights, and baby wipes, and told us that most of the group had marched to the Renaissance Hotel, where President Obama was schedule to be receiving people for dinner and a speech.  Of course, though the protest is NOT anti-Obama particularly, it was important to have a presence there, where voices had a chance to be heard.

We asked for directions to join the marchers, and one of the protesters, Jason, who had also been at Occupy Wall Street, volunteered to walk with us there.  One the way, he filled us in on some of the happenings in NY, as well as what had been going on in STL the last couple of days.

Along with the OccupySTL folks, there were also student protesters, and quite a few people hoping just to catch a glimpse of our president.  Folks with signs milled around everywhere, often stopping to take pictures of one another's signs or exchange names.  Several people with video cameras walked the sidewalk, prompting people to tell the camera why they'd come and what they were fighting for.  Fliers were passed out explaining the demands and the purpose of the Occupy Together movement/s, and, remarkably, people engaged in conversation with one another in a public space.

The chanting didn't start until Obama's cars appeared; of course, the President's entourage simply skirted us, electing instead to enter the other side of the building.  But we kept raising our voices: "Tell me what democracy looks like!  This is what democracy looks like!"
I couldn't help but be moved by the vast array of views being represented, but more importantly that the diversity of opinions and ideologies represented in the crowd didn't prevent the crying out of a singular voice: "Hey hey, ho ho, corporate greed has got to go!"

After it became apparent that the president was not going to come outside to acknowledge the protest, or his supporters who wanted to see him, several folks in the OccupySTL group took initiative to ask if people were wanting to march back to the camp together.  This was the first time I saw the decision making process that I remain impressed by.  Instead of taking a vote and letting majority dictate, or simply having a designated leader make the call, opinions were asked for by a facilitator, and then a vote was called.  It was not until consensus  was reached that the decision was made to march back to the park, chanting the whole way to mark our presence.

The park was much busier by this point, occupiers having gathered there when they got off work or school.  When the call went up, "Mic check!" and the crowd responded in turn, "General Assembly" was called.  Signs were shrugged off on the ground, outside the perimeter of the park, where anyone could grab a sign they liked to hold on the sidewalk, or passers-by could read them at their leisure.

Though I don't particularly want to go in to a ton of details about the general assembly, I do want to say that I am even more hopeful, and even more convinced that this movement needs to happen, now that I have seen the cooperation, mutual respect, and commitment to the democratic process inherent in the people gathered.  Not once did I see someone silenced for a dissenting opinion, nor did I feel as though my voice was valued less because I was only a visitor only for the evening.

During this first general assembly of the night, many people decided to run out to hold signs on the perimeter of the park to catch the massive crowds exiting the Cardinal's game at the stadium.  Holding any sign they liked from the growing pile, people lined up on all four corners and the median.  Many protesters attempted to engage in friendly, passing conversation with the baseball fans, and some fans even ended up picking up signs themselves.

Not everyone was so kind, of course, though from what I saw, the protesters were never aggressive or mean in their responses.  Strangely enough, many people seemed to think that the appropriate response to us was to yell, "Get a job!"  Clearly, they were also not at work, so the expectation that we all should be seemed, well, odd.  Not to mention the 10% unemployment rate right now preventing many people from finding a job that pays anything at all, let alone a living wage.

Though there were threats from the police about staying in the park past the 10pm curfew, many of the occupiers expressed their desire to stay, risking citations or even arrest.  Civil disobedience is, after all, an effect strategy.  A local religious leader also offered an alternative outside space in case they did get forcibly removed from the park.  My companions and I, though we could not stay the night, decided among ourselves to stay as long as we could after curfew.  We figured that, if nothing else, at the very least we could add numbers, and hopefully with enough people, the police would leave the occupation be for the night.

From what I've heard, that is unfortunately not the case, as the police did show up at 4.30am on the 5th, forcing people to leave the park.  They returned at 6am, but the latest update I've read on the OccupySTL Facebook (at 1.38am on 6 Oct 2011) says that people are now being arrested, and there is a large police presence (70+ officers).  A few people are reporting online that similar actions are being taken by police all over the country.  I am saddened by this news, but not surprised.

It is my deepest hope that despite the workings and desires of those in power to stifle and stop the movement, it continues and grows.  There is strength in our solidarity, and it is time for change.

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