Democratic Learning/Action Communities

Occupy Wall Street gatherings on October 15 at around 1500 sites in some 80 countries revealed a global uprising for building democratic learning and action communities. People were joyous to be together in streets and parks, on church steps, outside banks, and elsewhere—playing music, chanting, and exercising their freedoms. They sat in circles, paraded around with bands, and fed each other in dramatic outpourings of anger, aspiration, feelings, energy, humor, yearning, and wisdom.

Creative signs were displayed at the Occupy Santa Rosa gatherings in Northern California outside City Hall, which I attended on October 15, 16, and 17. For example, pink-clad, three-year-old Liliana Averill described her sign as “a love heart because I love my mom and my dad,” who is apparently unemployed. Her older, also pink-clad sister Jasmine sported a “Big Sister” t-shirt and a “Be Good” sign. These are among the many essential and diverse messages of this movement, which is more than merely a demonstration or protest.

“Fight the Big Cats,” read one dog’s sign. Other signs included the following: “The People are Too Big to Fail,” “They Got Bailed Out; We Got Sold Out,” “This is So Not Over,” “History is Made by Those Who Show Up,” and “Prepare for the Beginning.”

Young people have been leading this movement. They lead by doing and attracting a diversity of others to their good work. Many occupying over-night here are students at the Santa Rosa Junior College. Some of my Sonoma State University students were there, as well as some of our current and retired faculty, such as David Walls, an activist with moveon.org. I wore my California Faculty Association t-shirt, which says “Save public education! Keep the doors open!”

What can college students expect of their futures if the 1% continue to rule the 99% of us? Huge debts, few jobs, and many moving back with their parents. Why not occupy, go to the streets, and elsewhere to speak one’s truths?

“We don’t need to waste more time being miserable, watching injustice happen,” observed occupier Heather Williamson, 22, who currently works on an organic farm. “This movement is a first brave step, a very loud, bold step—saying that it really isn’t fine to bow our heads and pretend that everything is OK. This is the beginning of a new world.”

“In contrast to many protests where signs are pre-made,” gardener Steve Fowler, 71, noted at a meeting of a group called Earth Elders, “these signs were home-made. Many voices were heard. They have occupied political space and they are not going to give it up.”

Another Earth Elder, Bill Wadsworth, 70, said “I went without thinking I would stay over-night, and decided to. We have to keep this going. The support is inspiring. Neighboring stores gave lots of food. Pizzas arrived from out-of-state. The whole consensus decision-making really works. They use hand gestures and sign language.”

Decision-making that occurs at General Assemblies provides laboratories for learning and practicing democracy that is all-inclusive and leaderless, or “leaderful,” as some would say. In Santa Rosa and at most sites, occupiers have worked cooperatively with police. One inspiring video circulating is titled “Marine Defends Occupy Wall Street.”

The movement’s signs, slogans, and themes are communicated with ingenuity and the expressive potency of many grievances. Their diversity reveals an underlying commitment to values such as social justice, direct democracy, engaged learning, and decentralization. At circles, we dealt with issues related to power, privilege, oppression, and class analysis. Such circles facilitate vital conversations and sharing stories. People build relationships and explore their dreams and alternatives. This movement encourages, challenges, stimulates, provokes, catalyzes and convenes.

With around 3000 participants, the Santa Rosa occupation, according to the New York Times, was the sixth largest in the nation. This is in a small city of some 150,000. Local organizers say that they plan to stay at least until December 24, which is the date that the national movement has set to end the occupations and evolve into its next step, whatever that may be. The learning and action communities can be expected to continue in various forms. A gathering of people from the many General Assemblies is scheduled for July 4, 2012.

It was good to see some friends in the streets that I had not seen in years. Amidst the joy of being in a multi-generational and multi-cultural gathering, we were able to catch up. We have a strong GoLocal group here and they were there with signs, as were members of the Living Wage Coalition, Unitarian Universalist churches, Peace and Justice Center, North Bay Labor Council, and other long-time groups.

As a college teacher, I am glad to see signs with quotes from the classics, such as Goethe’s “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” The movement’s activists contend that they represent the 99% who are ruled by the 1% who dominate here in the United States.

Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz writes that we now have a government that is of the one percent, by the one percent, and for the one percent. What happened to “of the people, by the people, and for the people”?

Some members of the 1% have joined the movement. Robert S. Halpen, for example, is a retired Wall Street trader who has been helping fund Occupy’s nonprofit magazine. Defectors from the 1% are welcomed into the movement. The Canadian magazine Adbusters is credited with stimulating the movement when it sent an email this summer to its 90,000 readers. Halpen has been a long-time funder of the anticorporate magazine and its spoofs.

Former Sebastopol Mayor and city council member Larry Robinson attended and posted the following comment online: “Washington’s failures are a direct result of policies directed by Wall Street and for the benefit of Wall Street. Most Americans know this in their guts. We may have finally reached the tipping point!”

If this occupancy movement remains peaceful, it will grow and attract many millions around the world. It has chosen a worthy target, Wall Street, and appropriate strategies and tactics. It currently focuses on defining the problems here in the 21st century, which are numerous, as the gap between the rich and the poor grows. It is being patient and not jumping prematurely into solutions.

Readers might consider a visit to an occupation nearby where they live, see for themselves, and converse with those occupying. From sitting in circles of people of many generations and cultures with different ideas, one can participate in democratic learning/action communities. Food donations are welcome.

The U.S. government has been steadily loosing moral authority, which the occupy movement is helping the American people gain with its burst of energy. In less than a month, it has already dramatically changed global political power arrangements.

A New Story is unfolding before our eyes. One thing that may be sure is that its future and our futures are uncertain. A better future is possible.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.