Occupy the Chance of a Lifetime? Life in a Big Tent

by Pablo GhenisImage

It all started in relative obscurity, a persistent protest on Wall Street with a catchy name. A few progressive talk show hosts started asking why the rest of the media was ignoring this event, even though it had grown larger than the Tea Party rallies they covered so diligently in 2009-10. Good question. Could it be that the establishment was feeling vulnerable, after witnessing the Arab Spring? How could that be? The US isn’t like that, Americans haven’t rebelled that strongly since the Vietnam Era, it’s not done any more, right? Wrong…

Early on, we watched with interest as the Occupy Wall St. protest grew too big to ignore. As the Occupy Wall St. movement grew, the establishment switched from indifference to ridicule, a definite sign of concern. The Arab Spring seemed to be going global. This could be the ultimate irony, considering that some observers of the commodities markets noticed that Wall St. traders had speculated heavily on wheat futures in the year before the Arab Spring, unconcerned or unaware that wheat is the main staple of the Arab diet, causing the price to double, and leaving many poor families unable to feed themselves. They say a man will risk his life to fight the powerful the day he can no longer feed his family, and so it was in 2011.  If Occupy Wall Street was inspired by this, then it is a boomerang that was thrown two years ago by Wall Street itself, and now it has returned to hit them in the back of the head.

Many of us felt beaten down in this crash. There was obvious and shameless wrongdoing, yet the culprits  were rescued from their own recklessness, nobody went to jail, and then they turned around and victimized the people all over again. The game was rigged! Like losers at a casino, we collectively gasped at the outcome, and protested to no avail that It was Wall St. that had gambled and lost.

The Occupy movement arrived in San Jose as it spread like wildfire from Wall Street to the entire world. It was a confusing proposition, a leaderless movement, with clear complaints but taking its time to articulate specific demands, a non-partisan big tent of ideas meant to accommodate the 99% that got cheated by a lot of the top 1%.  Some friends thought I had lost my mind to take a break from my more traditional activism, mostly Latino voter registration, to jump into this new concept. Yet, it was irresistible.

From the Wall St. theme, it was obvious that eventually the demands would have to include financial transparency, return of the old regulatory protections in some updated form, an end to perverse incentives that reward selling doomed deals that blow up after the huge December bonus is paid, claw-backs to recover such fraudulent earnings, some plank that pushes for people to get compensated for creating value rather than for tricking people, etc. One could see a core that people would all see as common ground. If we could stay focused, we could change the world.

Ah, the big tent! I never thought a tent could carry so many meanings. The big tent politically has room for all of the 99%. The dome tents as a symbol of occupying our common space. Tents as a symbol of free speech.  Tents as shelter remind us that housing was used as the main instrument of financial mayhem.

For the big tent to work, literally embracing the entire political spectrum from big-government to no-government, we would all have to be very restrained about our previous/outside political affiliations. Partisanship or co-option inside the Occupation is the one thing that can tear us apart. It’s not that we’re not supposed to have a political past when we arrive, it’s simply that we leave it at the door, like taking off our shoes before entering a home.  It could be poor form or provocative to flaunt a partisan symbol from any party. The same goes for conversations or statements that are personal or partisan enough to draw a response from someone from the other side of the partisan divide. If someone does go there, the hardest thing is to bite your tongue and NOT try to rebut like you would do in the “normal” world.  The best response is to say “We probably disagree about that last statement. Lets not spend time on topics that can divide us, how about talking about the really important stuff that unites us?”. Yeah, I know, how hippy-dippy lovey-dovey does that sound like?  Can people from two parties talk to each other that way?  Yes, it happens, it feels really weird the first couple of times, and then you get used to it. Congress could learn a lot from us right there.

This drive to seek the common ground gets into you after spending some time at Occupy San Jose.   Not that there haven’t been a lot of rough spots (I’ll leave that for another article), but one of our better moments was when we build some supportive ties with Latino groups, by precisely focusing on issues that were common goals for both movements.

Can Occupy really change the nation, and the world?  It already has, by causing the national debate to shift from cuts to jobs.  It has put the focus back on simple common sense values like compensation for creating value rather than fraud. It has given political cover to politicians who want to promote the right values, because they can point to this people’s uprising. Going forward, my hope is for Occupy to change the world’s direction through a platform, being a watchdog, and changing the people in government  as needed, in an orderly and peaceful way, to bring fairness to our societies.

People have written many reasons on large sheets of paper for joining Occupy San Jose. My answer was a one-liner: Who would have thought that I’d see the start of a world-changing revolution, and that it would land 5 blocks from my apartment?

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