Occupy: 2012 and Beyond

Let us make sustainable hope our resolution for 2012. We need to be done with demoralizing cynicism, not least to honour those who have risked, or even lost, their lives in the non-violent global movement for a better world. My research evidences a number of reasons for a new, sustained, and committed hope that Time magazine’s determination of 2011 as the year of The Protester will translate into more than media spectacle in 2012. My research also attests that hope is flourishing among long-time activists and the (no longer disaffected and disenfranchised) younger generation engaged in the Occupy movement – and it is a hope unlike that of 2008’s “Yes We Can,” which was pinned to a single person.

Last spring, I received funding for a three-year study to explore how young people are redefining democracy and using social media for protest. At the time, I did not anticipate the Occupy movement, and was fully prepared to hear hundreds of interviewees and survey subjects give reasons for cynicism and despair. However, this fall, I visited five Occupy sites (Wall Street, Oakland, San Francisco, Toronto, and Minneapolis), studied infinite Twitter Feeds and LiveStreams, studied national and international news coverage, and observed three marches (including the fateful Occupy Times Square on Oct. 15, when the movement “went global”). I’ve also responded to dozens of media calls on this topic, in which journalists inevitably ask, “Why hasn’t the Occupy movement made specific demands?” Other pessimistic voices – even the sympathetic – complain, “They can barely organize to distribute food,” or, “I don’t want mob rule deciding our future,” or “They have become so mired in inclusive discussions that they can’t get anything done.”

Related: In Defence of Occupy

But there is rhyme and reason to the organic process of participatory democracy. When we surveyed 50 people under the age of 30 at Occupy Toronto in November, the most frequent responses to our question, “What is your hope for the outcome of Occupy?” were visions of a better world, hopes for different values guiding government (such as people before profit), and demands for substantial public input into political decision-making at local and national levels.

These visions indeed defy summary as a single legislative act. Though criticized for idealism and insufficiently specified goals, the Occupy participants stand in the shoes of respected American philosopher Henry Thoreau, who once said: “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” Thoreau’s words on civil disobedience echo Gandhi’s philosophy, adopted by many in the Occupy movement. For Gandhi, the “means are like the seed” while the “ends are like the tree.” Thus, the means (ongoing inclusive dialogue) ensure the end: creative visions and participatory democracy grounded in non-violent inclusivity.

With that in mind, here are five reasons you should make sustainable hope your minimum resolve as people around the world sacrifice and risk their lives for the sake of your human rights and economic justice:

1. We are seeing the growth of globally shared altruistic concerns and non-violent means in an unprecedented, transnational movement for economic justice.

From Tunisia, Egypt, London, Syria, and Bahrain to Spain, the United States, Canada, and Russia, whether governed by dictator or oligarchy, the people around the world demand an end to the morally unjust accumulation of wealth and power by the one per cent. The Arab Spring seems to have awoken even complacent North America to the need for altruistic civil disobedience. Altruism? Yes. To date, militarized police have arrested 5,000 people in North America. Occupy Wall Street launched in September, modelling itself on the 2011 Los Indignados of the Democracia Real Ya! movement in Spain, from which Occupy borrows such practices as hand-gesture communications used at general assemblies, food distribution, and horizontal organizational structure. Today’s global protests include participants of almost every cultural, religious, and political stripe. The common denominator is not an ideology, but globalization’s economic crisis demanding awakening and creative collective solutions. Occupiers introduced the slogan “We are the 99%,” forever changing our international lexicon, and, potentially, the future of politics.

2. Following decades of laments about youth political apathy, we witness a new generation of politicized youth.

Around the globe, a generation has come of age only to be faced with a lack of jobs, education that promises only debt, and the growing threat of global warming. Our interviews and research show that Occupy is the very first political engagement for over 50 per cent of the young people taking part. A remarkable number of the participants between the ages of 18 and 30 that we interviewed at Occupy Toronto said, “Being part of this movement has changed my life forever” or “This [public community, dialogue, alternative economy] is what I’ve been waiting for all my life!”

Long-time and new activists alike are building the Occupy community ethos and gift economies on the foundation of sustained dialogue and Gandhian non-violent philosophy. Participants, especially the younger members, describe their experience with Occupy as an awakening – the creation of a widespread awareness and way of living non-violently, reflecting what Gandhi called the “spiritualization of politics.”

3. We are seeing the widespread benefits of the effective use of social media.

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy San Francisco, I have made a point of meeting those young folks who are co-ordinating communications – from websites to live streams – resulting in open and powerful networks between the hundreds of Occupy sites. Many volunteers have taken on the task of archiving video streams and Twitter feeds. The level of web-based organization is impressive.

The unprecedented combination of mobile communications with face-to-face occupation of public spaces has been pivotal to the success of the Arab Spring and Occupy: These revolutions would not have been possible without social media. Mobile media enable vast numbers of people to organize quickly, and allow citizen journalists to transmit witness to these public events, including police misconduct, that would otherwise be unseen by the general public. And not to worry – should Occupy fall out of fashion in traditional media without the spectacle of illegal tents as photo-ops, the revolutions, at least for now, are live, open, and broadcast though grassroots media online, accessible around the world. And despite common assumptions about who uses social media, a recent PEW study showed that 50 per cent of people between 50 and 64 years of age are quickly catching up.

4. We are seeing an intergenerational and international social movement grounded in creative dialogue across diverse groups.

The diversity of age, social class, education, religion, and economic status found in protesters around the world (including within the Occupy movement) offers great hope. The global protests bring together the wisdom of veteran organizers and the energy and technological skills of the younger generation. At every Occupy site and march that I have attended, I have witnessed dialogue taking place between hundreds of unlikely conversants – homeless people talking to men in suits, black women conducting consciousness-raising workshops in the commons for diverse and rapt audiences, older people talking to the young – as people discuss solutions for a sustainable economy and environment. Occupy’s success in introducing new concepts – such as the “99%” and “economic justice” – into our political lexicon results directly from the public spaces of unprecedented dialogue. Reading online comments and Twitter feeds, one discovers thousands of strangers engaged in serious deliberation. The dream of a public commons where genuine democratic conversation takes place has, for many, come true.

Related: On Free Markets and Social Struggle

5. The final reason for hope is the Occupy movement’s commitment to inclusivity and non-violence.

Inclusivity, a hallmark practice and process of general assemblies and the “human megaphone,” embody the admirable aims of consensus and listening as foundational to participatory democracy. The new generation is building on crucial lessons from previous social movements, ensuring that all have a voice, and refusing to let class, gender, or race divide and conquer. The commitment to a leaderless movement supports the collective emergence of shared goals, allowing vastly more creative directions over time than if a few were given power to decide our fate. To silence and exclude some voices for the sake of expedience would defy the Gandhian philosophy that the means must resonate with the ends. So while the impatient ask, “Why are they bogged down in so much talk?”, this organic process is the fertile soil in which a truly participatory democracy has a chance of growing – over time, not overnight.

Yes, the Occupy camps were forcibly closed by militarized police, but every social movement ebbs and flows, with periods of quiet between breakthroughs. As one participant at Occupy Wall Street described, “We’re like water. We will take whatever form we need to take to get where we need to go.” We are witness to “synergy,” a concept popularized in the 1960s: the powerful process in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This movement is about the long haul, not about quick Band-Aids of reform. At the very least, we owe these visionaries and protestors fighting for the 99 per cent our sustained hope as we occupy 2012.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.