How Occupy Made Me Stronger
This article is reposted with permission from WagingNonViolence.org.
In its first year, Occupy Wall Street was called a “movement of movements.” Some likened its broad reach to an octopus. One person described occupied Zuccotti Park to me, wistfully, as a “city on the hill.” Then again, over dinner with the organizers of the National Gathering in Philadelphia this July, I heard OWS compared to “a bad dating scene.” As Occupiers gear up for a weekend of one-year-anniversary activities, it seems like the right time to offer my reading. For me, Occupy was more like psychotherapy — a process that helped me see new things about myself and overcome some of my fears.
Last winter, at the height of my Occu-enthusiasm, I did things that, for me, took a lot of gumption. I got arrested with about 30 others as part of a foreclosure-auction blockade. Alone, I stood up and interrupted the governor of New York when he gave a speech at my campus. I spoke before large crowds through the “people’s mic,” sometimes in support of public education, sometimes against corporate personhood, and often on the theme of love.
What motivated me to do these things? I had never been an activist before OWS. I hadn’t even been to a protest. The idea of joining a rowdy, confrontational demonstration never appealed to me. Or else, I thought, I didn’t have enough time or job security to put energy into activism.
It’s true that I had just spent a couple of years studying the history of nonviolence. The abolitionists, Gandhi, Tolstoy, and the Bhagavad Gita all captivated me. And I’ve long been a student of Iyengar yoga. Along with the stretching and breathing, that meant learning about satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-harming, love). Living fairly close to Lower Manhattan, I felt that OWS was a chance to witness a nonviolent movement unfold.
Plus, Occupy’s central message was a compelling one. So many of our society’s problems are directly linked to unaccountable banks and corporations having the power to write regulations, exploit workers, and destroy the environment, irrespective of whom we elect to government office.
Finding a Deeper Strength
But that isn’t exactly what kept me interested.
As a small child, I loved closets. I retreated into them to draw, to write, to dream up romances, and to escape from the confusing extremes of my household. In my little hiding places, I could create scenarios both comforting and exciting.
My older brother Sam was a big part of why I wanted to hide. My brother could be warm and generous, exuberant and hilarious, but also explosive. As a teenager, Sam’s moods ranged from euphoric, to paranoid, to sociopathic. Whatever he was—whatever the label—he was scary.
When I was eight and he was 17, he would try to coerce my parents into giving him what he wanted with threats like, “Well, I’m just going to drive the car off a bridge!” Once he pretended to strangle my cat in front of me. I can’t recall why. And, when I was around nine or ten, and very interested in boys and curious about sex, he said ominously, “You know, you’re not really my sister!” (He and my older sister were adopted; I was not.)
My father was a kind and patient man, but silent to a fault. This too was scary, given my brother’s Molotov-cocktail temperament. From early on, I wanted to provoke my father, to make him respond to Sam and to me.
As an adult, Sam loved dangerous thrills and getting high. He had many encounters with the police. He bounced around from job to job. In the 1990s, between landscaping work and selling used cars, he sold pot and heroin, which landed him a one-year jail sentence at a low-security prison.
Then, last winter, when my family gathered for a relative’s funeral, Sam had a particularly bad spell. He was talking incessantly. He looked flushed and agitated. He desperately wanted to leave town. A doctor trying to help him get off Oxycontin told me that he thought Sam was bipolar and that he could be in a dangerous state of florid mania.
That night, I convinced my family to help me hospitalize Sam. In the emergency room at 2 a.m.—after Sam had vaguely threatened me and ranted incoherently to the doctor—I looked into my brother’s mesmerizing bloodshot eyes and said, “Sam, I love you. We are going to get through this. I know you will forgive me. But I am going to sign the papers!”
At the time, I felt Occupy had given me the courage to break away from other people’s well-intentioned “enabling.” I didn’t want to let my brother continue running the show, as he always had, like a mad puppeteer.
By the same token, refusing to go along with the status quo in my family fed my attachment to OWS. When I interrupted Andrew Cuomo under the fatherly gaze of our college president, I said that Occupy Wall Street was “a nonviolent movement fighting for justice and freedom” and that he should “join us.” In some other dimension, I said to my brother, “We, the rest of us, are not going to let you keep strong-arming us and boxing us in!”
Sam was discharged from the hospital after three days. The attending psychiatrist felt he was “not a danger to himself or others.” He agreed to get psychiatric care and addiction counseling. We all felt cautiously hopeful. But something went terribly wrong. Two months later, Sam overdosed. His body was found in a motel room in Kentucky. There were no signs of a suicide. Just before he died, he told my mother he was enjoying seeing his psychiatrist. He had lots of plans.
Occupy Wall Street’s Moral Ground
Much of the Occupy movement’s power comes from a simple moral message: It’s wrong to wreck the world. It’s wrong to wreck the health and hopes of others.
When I delivered a eulogy for Sam in the church where we grew up, I addressed my family as I never had before, speaking without trepidation about my love for my brother and his many endearing qualities.
All of these small acts of rebellion somehow fed into one another.
Occupy forced me to look at an unresolved conflict. As a girl, part of me had wanted to get close to my brother and my father—one exciting but totally unpredictable, the other safe but silent and unmovable—yet another part of me feared the consequences. My solution was to create stories and scenes that gave me the illusion of control. In my childhood imagination, also in my later professional work, I could anticipate securing the love that I wanted from both kinds of men, absent the danger of the unexpected.
The movement made this all clearer to me, perhaps because I grew more comfortable with improvisation. The very unexpectedness of OWS—never knowing who would say what—seemed so delicious. However, by June, the movement had stalled and I was overwhelmed with questions. My father was gone. (He died nine years ago.) Now my brother was gone, too.
Coming Out of Our Shells
Should I continue to obsess over these two kinds of men, the fiery and the contained, the Supermen and the Clark Kents? The boundary between the safe and the scary—what was under my control and what was beyond it—began to break down. I had gone to protests with unforeseeable outcomes. I had started writing more creatively, without trying to fit my ideas into a predetermined academic mold, and there was no negative backlash.
Without the same reasons for closeting myself away, I gained an exceptionally clear view of the negative side effects of my old coping strategy—namely isolation from friends and even loved ones, discomfort with life’s accidental aspects, and difficulties finishing the projects that I start.
True to the chant, Occupy showed me that another world is possible, one in which people listen to one another (or at least express that intention) and no single person decides everything for the whole group—in short, the opposite of my family. Albeit imperfectly, it served as a “community of resistance,” which Thich Nhat Hanh, in a 1975 conversation with Daniel Berrigan, defined as “like a church or a temple where everything you see expresses the tendency to be oneself, to go back to oneself, to come into communion with reality,” with life.
What does all this say about movements, especially OWS?
By rejecting organizational hierarchy and foregoing demands, did Occupy attract too many people like me hungry for psychological emancipation—as opposed to civil society groups and organized constituencies primed to make legitimate claims on society’s wealth?
Was OWS too insular? Did it rest on its autumn laurels by acting as if embodying non-materialistic values and practicing mutual aid would be enough to win over people worried about debts, pensions and jobs?
Or, perhaps we need to better appreciate how psychological motives fuel political ones and how desire and inhibition work in public and in private—something many classic texts on nonviolence explore.
The tactics of passive resistance—including sit-ins and other occupations of space—often involve tenderly anticipated confrontations. Don’t peaceful protests, even those inspired by bread-and-butter issues, come down to dialogues in which a weaker party, after a heroic effort, commands the attention of a towering person or institution, and issues them (and onlookers) with a dilemma, an ultimatum to listen, think, change, act or lose power? And don’t we all want to force such dilemmas on someone, if not on ourselves—on a person from our past with whom we are not fully reconciled?
Nonviolence can activate a whole array of individual and social responses, and it’s not only accessible to the disciplined or the saintly. It is true that satyagraha, “holding firmly to truth,” involves self-sacrifice, as Gandhi preached. It means shrinking the self, reigning in pride and acquisitiveness. On the other hand, nonviolent movements, perhaps especially decentralized ones, provide a stage for playing out Freudian family dramas—complete with warnings from the chorus, the breech of social norms, and the all-too-predictable, almost formulaic, punishing aftermath.
Attempts to use this “force” can release submerged fears and furtive longings that drive us, energize us, and shape our choices, often without our full awareness. It’s strange that all this murky stuff can exist alongside the more celebrated aspects of nonviolence—the sacred, the uplifting, and the shrewdly tactical—but it does. And this ought to be welcomed by its proponents, or at least acknowledged and held up for debate.
I think I understand civil resistance somewhat better having tried to practice it and failed—or succeeded, I’m still not sure which. I also learned something about what can draw people into extremism and also lull them into passivity—namely, dreams of salvation. It seems likely that, as a girl, I developed a “rescue fantasy,” in which a larger-than-life figure, a Prince Charming, would swoop down and save me (Christ-like, Obama-like?).
In lieu of a savior, I got this myth-destroying movement that never sat still for the camera, never stayed inside the boundaries authorities tried to place around it, and used processes that urged participants to watch and to monitor themselves, not to police others or to expect uniformity.
For all these reasons, I hope future historians of Occupy will not reduce it to didactic “lessons” without acknowledging that, whatever happened in public, much more happened within the minds of the Occupiers that was important and worth understanding, however difficult it is to piece together. OWS in its first year may have made little impact on policy, but what did it do for the people who joined it and for those who watched it, transfixed, dismissive, bewildered, hopeful?
Thanks to OWS, I feel somewhat more able to act with autonomy, based on the world as it really is, and not—at least not to such a disabling degree—on what my unconscious mind had placed around me, like a shell. I feel more like a self-governing adult, obliged to live with the whims of chance, to move through situations in which some roles are encouraged and some disallowed, and more cognizant of some of my buried fears and wishes.
Occupy’s effects on my personal life were not all liberating. Like many of my comrades, I cannot easily go back to my old life, nor do I fully see where to go next. And I continue to mourn the preventable death of my brother, who had become one of my closest confidants and was someone I loved very much.
While some may think Occupy Wall Street was like an octopus that got dismembered or a utopian society we should strive to reproduce, I think it was more like a therapeutic exercise. I’m glad I got so deeply into the process. I’ll always be grateful to this movement for helping me come out of the closet.
I’m also excited that Occupy continues. This indefinable uprising, with all its complexities, is still evolving, and asking us to evolve with it. Who knows what the next year will bring?
Grace Davie is Associate Professor of History at Queens College-CUNY and the author of the forthcoming book The Poverty Question and the Human Sciences in South Africa.
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