On Listening and Being Heard at Occupy Wall Street

By Allain Barnett It was a Saturday night, and I was glued to my computer screen, watching closely as a large line of police officers closed in on a group of citizens occupying a public park in Chicago. Many were sitting at the perimeter of their camp. They refused to move, but they did not fight. Instead they chanted, "We love you," as the police began pulling people from the line and arresting them. This feed was streaming live from a participant with a Wi-Fi connected laptop or smartphone. In a chat window next to the video stream, people sent supporting messages or advice like, "Don't fight back! Stay non-violent!"

A few hours before watching the drama unfold in Chicago, I was one of a group of people occupying Margeret T. Hance Park in downtown Phoenix. Protestors were taking turns suggesting how the crowd should deal with the possibility of a police arrest. The crowd listened to suggestions and responded with hand signals to indicate whether they agreed, did not agree or wished to block the suggestion and make an alteration. These hand signals seemed a little silly at first, but then I realized the importance of the process. One individual, for example, argued that passively resisting the police (which would inevitably result in arrests) could have disproportionate effects on marginalized people within the crowd, such as ethnic minorities and the disabled. I lifted my hands into the air to gesture support for this statement, and it was agreed that passive resistance by some protestors should not put marginalized people at risk.

For the first time I was witnessing a form of participatory democracy in action; decisions were made by consensus from nearly all of the people at the park. Not only that, I was actually participating in this process. Such participatory processes are featured heavily in literature on common property resources, vulnerability, environmental justice, resilience, political ecology and ecological economics when considering questions of sustainability, which emphasize the equity between the current generation and future generations, and between social groups within the current generation. This body of literature highlights case studies of existing successes, as well as critiques demonstrating the pervasiveness of power and hierarchy. Similarly, the process I witnessed in the park certainly wasn’t perfect. It was messy, sometimes frustrating, but when a decision was made, most people complied. Maybe this is because people are more likely to follow rules they themselves have participated in developing, or maybe it was because they believed in working together to send their message to the American public, Wall Street and Washington.

While media outlets have not given much recognition to Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS) method of imagining different democratic processes, they have criticized the lack of demands coming from OWS protestors. But the protestors are not without desire or vision: members of OWS in New York City have developed a list of grievances emphasizing the power of unregulated or under-regulated corporations to seek profit at the expensive of environmental degradation and inequality, and have encouraged American and global citizens to occupy public spaces and begin to address these problems through a truly participatory democratic process.

To some this may sound vague and, importantly, it will make it difficult to determine when and if the movement has succeeded. Yet this vagueness is vital to the success of the movement. The transformative potential of OWS is based on its recognition that there are no cure-all solutions and its devotion to a decision-making process that engages the public to participate, which can lead to a family of solutions for a wide range of problems. Since my participation in Occupy Phoenix I have been catching glimpses of what success might look like. More frequently than before October 15th, the day OWS went global, I now find myself involved in conversations with friends and strangers about our current economic, social, environmental and political problems. The continuing success of the movement depends on expanding the discussion to workplaces, universities, classrooms and public spaces, and on people from all over the political spectrum beginning to talk about the future they want and how they can achieve it. These conversations may be messy and frustrating, but they can also bring a sense of empowerment and innovation that can put more pressure on those who have been elected to represent us, and lead to outcomes that are both sustainable and fair.

While I am highly doubtful that OWS protesters would adopt sustainability as their unifying objective, I am certain that students of sustainability and occupiers have many shared visions of the future for our environment and human well-being. Of course, I am not an official spokesperson for OWS: we are the spokespeople for our future, and now is the perfect time to speak up.

Contributor’s Biography

Allain Barnett is pursuing his PhD in Environmental Social Science at Arizona State University. His research focuses on fisheries management in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the livelihoods and practices of fishing households under conditions of environmental and economic change.