Think about the Occupy movement as a piece of performance art rather than a protest. Many of those involved will think that I am degrading the movement by saying this. Many of its detractors will happily agree, ready to dismiss it with an even swifter wave of the hand. Let me explain where I’m coming from.
One of the loudest criticisms of the movement – both from those who support it and those who do not – is that there are no clearly stated demands. When I was setting up my tent with some other students, members of the Providence community, and participants of Occupy Providence on the Main Green this Friday for Occupy College Hill’s One Night Stand (see here), we were approached by a young man who criticized our movement, yelling, “What do you want. You can’t even tell me what you want!” We were all pretty used to this sort of thing by this point, and we explained to the man that he could find out what we wanted by talking to us individually, or by looking at the pieces of poster board we had set up along the Green where people had been writing their grievances throughout the day. He said: “But that’s too many things! This is a protest! You can’t want all of that!” We explained to him that, yes, in fact, we could want all that. He said: “But you all don’t agree on what you want!” We explained to him that, yes, that sometimes happens when you bring a large group of people together and ask them what’s wrong with their school, or their city, or their country, and you give every person who shows up an equal opportunity to voice their opinion.
We talked for about half an hour. When I passed that man in the street yesterday, he smiled at me warmly.
The strength of our movement is that we are not protesting a single issue. I know many people have voiced this already, but I think it’s worth saying again. We are creating a space—in fact, we are creating many spaces all around the world (1500 and growing, last I checked)—where people who are not satisfied with the way we are living can come together and have a dialogue about the ways in which we might go about changing our system to better suit the needs of the vast majority rather than the tiny minority. This may sound meaningless, but it is not. With most protests, the agenda is decided by a hierarchical power structure, after which people are invited to show up if they agree with the demands. The Occupy movement is different: the gathering happens first, and then the demands (or grievances, or strategies, or plans, or whatever) come second, the idea being that everyone who shows up for the gathering can have a say in the larger movement. Sometimes this turns into a petition of grievances and a proposed plan of action like this one from Occupy Wall Street; sometimes it turns into a man in a Guy Fawkes mask yelling that we should abolish private property. The point of the movement is that no one, and everyone, is its spokesman.
One of the things that irks me the most in the writing that’s come out about the movement from students and intellectuals is the expression of a concern that the movement will be co-opted by “the crazies”—the Anarchists, the Communists, the Socialists. First, the movement cannot be co-opted by anyone, because there is nothing to co-opt. Second, the Anarchists and the Communists and the Socialists are not some sort of blemish on the face of the movement or some sort of disease of which the movement must cure itself. They are already a part of the movement. And so are you, and so am I. Part of the point of Occupy is to find out where all of our various grievances and interests intersect. We are not in the business of telling the radicals to shut up and go home so that the reasonable, level headed, well-educated liberal progressives can hash things out. Occupy is not a radical movement, at least as I see it, but it is a movement about bringing together the radicals, and the progressives, and maybe even the Tea Partiers and having them talk to each other and learn from one another to see what they can agree on.
As I’ve described it to my friends, it’s a lot like going to a concert by a band you admire. Do you like everyone in the audience? No. Are there some people you’d rather not be associated with who are singing along with you to your favorite songs? Yes. Are there some people you find annoying? You bet. Are there some people who you think like the band for the wrong reasons? Who don’t really get it? Of course. So what do you do? It seems to me that there are two options: One, you decide that being around these people is too distasteful for you to stomach, and you stop going to this band’s concerts. Two, you use your shared love the band to investigate the ways in which you and these people can come together and create something beautiful despite your differences. If the concert is economic justice, then we are the audience. The difference is: we are also the band.
Of course, sometimes you may find that you really don’t have much in common with the other people who show up to Occupy, that you want totally different things, or that your preferred methods for social change are irreconcilably different. You may even find that, after trying to come to some common ground with a lot of these people, you still sort of…don’t like them. That’s fine too. You can only hope that they don’t make up the bulk of the movement. It is important to note that solidarity is not about loving everyone. It’s not about singing kumbaya (though, frankly, if everyone feels like it, why shouldn’t they sing kumbaya? It’s a beautiful song.) Solidarity is about respecting each other and standing by one another as we fight toward our common ends. It is also about preserving a non-violent space – meaning that, if someone tries to start a mosh pit at our concert, we will throw them out and tell them not to come back.
More important for the purposes of this article, however – and this is where I’ll talk about performance art – Occupy seems to be about creating a visible space of dissent in the public sphere. What strikes me as the single greatest contribution of the Occupy movement is its role as a strobe light of agitation in the center of the city – forcing people to examine their own relationship to and stance on the economic injustice that seems to pervade our society, setting off any number of thought processes, debates, and quests for individual education on the economy. Besides perhaps getting people to look up the Dodd-Frank act or the Glass-Steagall act, or getting people to look more critically at Rick Perry interviews, Occupy does what any good piece of art does: It asks questions. In this light, it is not the job of the Occupiers to supply the answers. It is their job to keep asking the questions—louder and louder, in more and more places. This is what artists have been doing forever: trying to break the taboo of asking certain questions so that eventually we may come upon the answers. It has been a frequent criticism of artists that all they do is ask questions and never give answers. There has always been a strain of criticism among art detractors (particularly when the art concerns itself with political issues) that goes something along the lines of: “Who are you to ask this question if you can’t give the answer?” To this, I say, who was Shakespeare to ask: “To be or not to be?” At least he had the gumption to ask. Most people didn’t. And before Occupy, most people didn’t have the gumption to ask: “Why is it that the top 1% seems to be doing so well when the rest of the 99% seem to be doing so poorly?” The answer is open, and the job of the movement is to create room for it, not to supply it.
This is why, when people ask me what Occupy is about, I am almost as hard pressed to give them an answer as when they ask me what one of my plays is about. Edward Albee (who I like to quote a lot) says that when people ask him what one of his plays is about, he replies: “It’s about two hours long.” He does this, he claims, not to be a smartass (doubt that if you will), but because his plays are about much more than he can succinctly explain in a reply. As Albee says: “Any play that can be summed up in two or three sentences should be two or three sentences long” (for this interview, go here). I feel similarly about movements: Any movement that can be summed up by a list of demands should just be a list of demands. Plays are about everything, and so are sonatas, and so are poems. Why shouldn’t movements be the same way?
When I was at Occupy Wall Street two weeks ago, I heard a chant that at first struck me as kind of stupid. It sounded like exactly what the detractors of the Occupy movement would like to hear from the mouths of the participants. It sounded like exactly the kind of thing that could work to make the movement look ridiculous, and unorganized, and chaotic. The chant was: “What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!”
Looking back on it, that chant seems just about right.