This is my fourth time down there, and every time I've been I've come away with mixed feelings and a sense of something I struggle hard to articulate. I want to try to articulate it here.
First off, I'm fascinated and a little in awe of their decision making process. I know a very, very little bit about group decision making in a flat leadership structure. I learn more and more through Common Table all of the time, and I learned some things in my masters degree about facilitation and group decision-making, but I've never witnessed something like this: a culture of its own emerging in a public space... a little mini-society, complete with rules for decision-making and administration of resources. My understanding is that the process they use, as well as some of their lingo and use of common gestures and symbols, has been adapted from Occupy Wall Street, but that doesn't make it much less amazing to me. I watched two young women facilitate a large gathering, complete with occasional ranting from folks who appeared mentally ill, with competence, purpose and clarity. Decisions were made. Plans were formed. Tasks were delegated. In other words, shit got *done*.
I spend a really, really disproportionate amount of time in meetings, and the fact that a group of people could self-organize with this level of efficiency and conduct a meeting that is actually productive in the middle of a park on a cold Friday night kind of blew my mind. Whatever ultimately comes of these protests, there are graduate degrees to be had studying the conditions that have led to these mini-communities forming and sustaining themselves all over the country.
However much admiration I have for their process, though, I always feel a little ill at ease being there. I thought this was because I work for the Government, because I can only spend limited time down there, because I'm not a "radical", whatever that is exactly.
But tonight I looked around and saw other people like me... people in work clothes, with sensible overcoats, carrying laptops. Some of these people spoke, and mentioned their day jobs and their desire not to be arrested because it would jeopardize their employment. As I looked around the crowd, I realized that the people who'd clearly come from work appeared to be about a quarter of the crowd. I wasn't expecting that at ALL. So that wasn't the source of my discomfort, exactly. What was?
My friend Micah Bales has been involved in Occupy DC from the very beginning. He's the reason I came down to the protests the first time, and my admiration for his dedication to this cause is the main reason I keep going. He's struggled very publicly on his blog with being a person of faith (he is a founding member of Capitol Hill Friends, where I worship on Sunday nights) who is there as a result of those convictions. I found his thoughts at this post clarifying tonight, particularly this quote:
"There are many Christians involved in Occupy DC - I discover more all the time. Nevertheless, the overall culture and worldview of the Occupy movement is a lowest-common-denominator, generally left-wing set of assumptions. So far, almost all of the discourse at Occupy DC has been about "restoring democracy," "building power," or the plight of "the 99%." I have not heard anyone - including the folks whom I know are Christians - talking about the Kingdom of God and Jesus' mission to liberate the poor and oppressed."
When I read that, I thought, oh. That's it. It wouldn't honestly occur to me to expect Occupy DC to have a Christian message, but without that message, the desires of the protesters for a better, more ethical and just society feel to me like clothes that just don't fit right. It's not that lack of faith makes what they're asking for inauthentic... but without faith, I can't access it. I can't get beyond the irony of folks on smart phones (including me) protesting the abuses of capitalism. I can't get away from the twinge I feel in my gut walking away from the park and into the train station, where the actual homeless people are slumped over in the corner. Without Christ at the center, so much of what is being asked for seems put on to me, inauthentic.
The final point: for all I would say about community forming spontaneously around the protests, no one ever talks to me when I'm there, and that might bother me more than anything else. I understand that the nature of a protest is such that the participants are going to be self-conscious, but the level of self-consciousness feels really inauthentic to me. Walking out of the park, away from the protesters and where the usual street people are, one man greeted me: "Good evening, Queen." I said "hullo" and smiled and he said "God bless you, have a good night", and I said "you, too" and thought gosh, it's nice to be called "Queen". Waiting at the intersection, a man in a fuzzy blue hat who seemed like he was probably high approached and said "Good evening, ma'am. You're very beautiful. Pencils and lights. Sounds like Jupiter, doesn't it?"
And I smiled and thought, yes, it sounds like Jupiter. And that I suddenly felt much more at home than I did in that park.
For all my confusion about what I feel about Occupy DC, I'm still glad they're there. DC can be so numb, and so numbing. Last Sunday, when I walked into the park and stood around an impromptu concert featuring a stand-up bass, violin, mandolin, guitars and rhythm instruments, I was deeply grateful for that. I am grateful to see evidence that people who choose to step out of the flow of "normal" life can then choose to organize themselves and have a medical tent, food tent, a legal consultation team (!) and even tech support. I love that there are always people painting and at least one person playing a drum. I love that people have named their tents.
I don't know what the end of Occupy DC will be... but I know that when it ends, I'll feel like we've lost something... a site of protest and rebellion in a town that is often too well-off and comfortable for its own good... an outward manifestation of my own inward frustration at the injustices I'm a part of without my consent. So I'll continue to visit, and I will pray for it. That is all I know to do.