To Occupy and to Serve
by Robert Stephens
When people find out that I have participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement, they often ask me to explain what we want. I am quick to remind them that I can only speak for myself, and not for the movement as a whole (this is one of the occupation movement’s core principles). The popular critique seems to be that we are unfocused and we lack clear and measurable policy demands. I would like to respond to that critique.
The occupation movement is not a political movement; it is a personal and social awakening. For many of us, this is our first time participating in a group that validates and supports the mission to create a more just community. For the first time, many of us are finding our voices. Nonparticipants often wonder what the movement’s demands are, but the occupations cannot be understood through a political lens. The movement doesn’t speak the language of politics, which is why it doesn’t need demands. Demands are points from which to make concessions, and ultimately, to reach compromise with a competing group. The most important thing to understand about the occupations is that people are creating a culture of personal and collective empowerment, not a political coalition.
Manissa McCleave Maharawal, an anthropology doctoral student, highlights the personal nature of the transformation.
“This made me realize that since getting involved in Occupy Wall Street I have felt myself change. Speaking up to block the Declaration of Occupy Wall Street so that its language was inclusive and didn’t erase historical and current oppressions and inequalities (which you can read about here) was a moment in which I realized, in a way that I haven’t before, that I can do this. That feeling was about that particular moment but also something larger, something that has grown to encompass thinking about ways in which to create a world outside of capitalism. I keep thinking: we can do this. And I’m not scared to say this stuff anymore, I’m not scared to articulate my hopes and dreams and wishes for the world. I’m not scared to sit down with Eliot Spitzer and debate capitalism, as did I last week for a New York Magazine piece a friend was putting together. Even if he is defensive and won’t let me finish my sentences and tries to tell me that my thinking isn’t “rigorous,” even then I’m still not scared of him.”
Personally, I feel empowered by my time at the occupations in New York and DC. This new sense of empowerment has led to me coming to a major conclusion: I no longer believe in the legal system to serve as a catalyst for social transformation. When the legal philosophy was established in this country, it was constructed according to the interests of the people who were in the room at the time: white, Anglo, land-owning, merchant, (presumably) heterosexual, male etc. In their system, any claim for just treatment must be articulated in their words and according to their rules, both of which were explicitly set up to benefit them and not the powerless. For example, the Civil Rights Act does not grant “protections” because a person is human; it works because discrimination affects interstate commerce. Your rights only extend as far as your purchasing power, which is no surprise given the elite economic position of the founders. The rights have to be articulated within the bounds of the original Constitutional provisions, only their rules and language grant recognition.
We pretend that our legal system is objective, when it is actually a subjective reflection of the men who constructed it. Any time people advocate for protection, they have to fit their struggle into the worldview of those 18th century men. I feel like oppressed people are in a constant fight to prove that we deserve to be included in the original conception of America. I think that in the battle to bend legal rules to accommodate marginalized and oppressed people, truth and justice are often obscured. For me, the truth is that this society was founded by slave-holders and mass murderers who were struggling to best balance the interests of land-owning industrialists and agriculturalists. I believe that a society founded on principles of exclusion and oppression can never be just. I feel that if we were to work together now, we could do so much better.
However, just as the founders of this country benefitted from a murderous regime of exploitation, the same can be said of modern Americans. If I don’t believe that justice can flow from a system built on African slavery, Native American genocide, and exploitation, then justice cannot sprout from our modern society either. My comfort is based on sweatshops, drone attacks, and much of the same oppression that existed at the country’s founding. How can I claim to be less oppressive than the founders of this country?
This epiphany is the reason I feel that the true power of the occupation movement is not found in its political demands. I and many others are experiencing a paradigm shift that calls for us to think beyond how we would like to structure power, but to instead focus on practical and ideal ways to treat one another better. However, this is not a universal understanding at the occupations.
One day I was standing at the occupation kitchen when a man was lamenting about houseless people who were coming to eat food, but not participating in the occupation. He wanted to distribute tokens so that food would go to movement participants only. I and another man (who is himself houseless) said that we believe this movement is about creating spaces where everyone can eat, find shelter, and camaraderie. My friend also added that he had been reaching out to people living in the streets and encouraging them to join the occupation or at least get food.
We were not interested in securing power over food distribution; we only wanted to serve others. I may not ever be able to fully liberate myself from benefitting from others’ suffering. I may be no less of an oppressor than the founders of this nation, but this movement has shown me that importance of valuing service over power. To me, this is much deeper than taking the power to redistribute resources; we must create a new culture of empathetic service. We will not succeed in spreading this shift through political channels. Instead, we must communities based on these new principles and demonstrate their effectiveness to others.
Finally, after I was arrested a lot of online media outlets spread a lot of things that were not true. Armed with a new sense of empathy, I reached out to one of the blogs that was particularly aggressive in its attacks against me. The author and I are set to go visit the occupation later this week and perhaps we will reach common ground. So when he asks me about what we want, I will tell him “To Serve.”