Occupy Wall Street – Something Happening Here

by Tom Cordaro

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down (- Buffalo Springfield)

There is Something Happening

The weekend of Oct. 15-16 my daughter Angela and I had the privilege of attending the Pax Christi Metro New York Fall Assembly where I gave the keynote address. As you might expect a lot of the conversation focused on the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that started in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street. I was very pleased to hear many ideas and plans from Pax Christi folks on how they might support this important movement.

We made two visits to Zuccotti Park—reclaimed by its original name “Liberty Plaza” by OWS. The plaza was cluttered but orderly and clean. (They have their own sanitation department!)  But what really caught my attention was the great energy and hospitality of the young people who were definitely taking the lead in this “leaderless” movement.

Occupiers Hold Moral High Ground

Initially there was a lot of criticism from the leftist intellegencia about the lack of focus and concrete demands of this movement.  While many see this as a weakness I believe it might be a strength.  As Mary Elizabeth King reminds us in her recent commentary, Occupy Wall Street’s Message Is Evolving — And That’s a Good Thing, the revolution in East Germany in 1989 climaxed with 13 consecutive Monday-night demonstrations with five million East German citizens participating in candle-lit vigils. The slogan-writers adapted their message to reflect the evolving narrative that was being created.  In November, chants went from “We want to leave” to “We are staying here.” Other calls asked for popular sovereignty: “We are the people!”  Eventually, as the hoped-for reunification of East and West Germany increasingly became a possibility, the painted signs proclaimed of the two Germanys, “We are one people!”

I think that more than a list of demands the OWS movement is creating an alternative narrative that is changing the political discourse and national conversation about what is wrong in our country and what we need to do to fix it. By staying free from cooptation by the Democratic Party and a whole host of progressive special interests it has created a space for something different to take shape. And, unlike the Tea Party, its analysis is grounded in an economic power analysis directed at BOTH Washington AND Wall Street.

Time to Re-Evaluate Our Position

We on the left often make the mistake of thinking that the struggle for social justice is primarily about the next election and/or some grand legislative agenda. We often operate from the false assumption that offering rational arguments and putting forth reasoned analysis alone is all that is needed to create social & political change. Those on the right, like Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, have always understood that people are not moved to action by white papers, legislative agendas, rational argument or reasoned analysis. People are moved by a compelling narrative.

By creating a compelling narrative that touches on deeply held American values like fairness and equality the OWS people have changed the conversation in our nation, and this is the most important first step in creating social change. Lists of demands, ten-point plans, legislative agendas and electoral strategies are all secondary.

One of the challenges for the faith-based peace movement (especially for those over 50) is to be careful about the way we frame our relationship with the OWS movement.  If we frame our relationship in terms of how we might advance a “peace movement” agenda we might miss what is happening here. The problem with this framing is that it sees the OWS movement as something different from the peace movement. And if you think they are different you may be operating out of an old paradigm that is foreign to most of the young people in Liberty Plaza.

Globalization of Distress

The new paradigm began to take shape with the birth of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s. This new paradigm frames the primary arena of conflict in our world, not in terms of the use of military power but in terms of economic and cultural oppression and domination. To put it another way, in the 1970s- 80s the faith-based peace movement used to talk about “The Bomb” as representing THE deadly false idol that perverted our morality, our politics and our culture.

But in fact, with the end of the Cold War and the intensification of globalization, it turns out that “The Bomb” is only a minor deity in the pantheon of false idols. “The Bomb” is a sycophant deity that serves a much more deadly and powerful idol. This idol has many names but it is encompasses a matrix of institutions and systems that enforce an economic and cultural world order that favors the rich and kills the poor. Its purpose is to maintain the systems of power and privilege in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. It enforces its order through many forms of oppressive social constructs (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.). And as globalization makes clear, these institutions and systems are both local and global at the same time.

If you don’t understand that the “peace movement” is about dismantling, reconstituting and transforming this matrix of institutions and systems, then you are stuck in an old paradigm that,  overtime will leave you in a small circle of geriatrics talking to yourselves.  And if your understanding of the peace movement is stuck in the old paradigm of the 1970-80s, the young people organizing the OWS will see you as nothing more than another special interest group trying to hijack the movement.

The question should not be “How can we use this movement to accomplish our own set of goals?”  It should be, “How can we help this movement succeed and what can we learn about social transformation and revolution from this leader-less movement?”

As I said, I was pleased by the quality of discussion at the Pax Christi Metro New York gathering. It was clear that many of them get it. As I enter the circles of discussion with OWS folks, I need to keep repeating this mantra, “Shut up and listen. Shut up and listen, Tom.” Φ

Tom Cordaro is the author of the award-winning book, Be Not Afraid: An Alternative to the War on Terror, and a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace.

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