For me, Occupy Wall Street began long before Sept. 17. It began in the spring months, in the afterglow of Egypt’s triumph and the dawn of Libya’s struggle. It began on a simple walk on the beach with a good friend.
It was nearing evening. The wind was cool, and even though the waves were tame, we had to keep our voices strong to be heard over the wind.
Like most ideological discussions, we rarely reached any conclusions, but we both found relief in the shared perception of unrest we felt building across the world and in our own country.
“What the hell are we doing?” we wondered. And on those walks, that often trailed into the moonlight, we grappled with many topics — global militarization and tribunals, revolution, taxes, social services, the economy, health care, industrialization of Third World countries, depletion of resources, dependence on fossil fuels — and at the end of every walk, we would part ways, pensive and troubled, but also grateful and excited.
Before those walks, I had allowed myself to be dismissed as a wide-eyed liberal who had a tendency to fret, like a child, over all the cracks in my Ivory Tower. But each talk offered a little more common ground, and I realized that I wasn’t alone, that others believed there were irrational and destructive aspects of mainstream society. I began to feel confident that I was right to question the status quo, and I was beginning to believe there were actual answers at the end of the ideological rainbow.
Two months ago, when Occupy Wall Street formed, I scoffed. You may remember these words,
“Without a parallel resource for educating the masses, and with no plan for change, the protesters seem like a bunch of cry-babies who want an Arab Spring so they can afford a plasma television. Claiming you just won’t stand for something is about as effective as pouting.”
And yes, there seems to be a lot of pouting, a lot of gnashing of teeth, a lot of unnecessary pepper spray — but that’s across the nation. Here’s what’s happening in Fayetteville.
The initial march on Oct. 15 brought hundreds of protesters together. Now, the group has moved into its “occupied” stage in which the protesters are camped alongside the Fayetteville Town Center. There is little risk for a clash with the police. The group is harmonious in nature, seeking a symbiotic, communal attitude at all times.
The dozen or so occupiers live on donations, and any extra food they receive is contributed to the NWA Food Bank. On Saturdays, they clean the downtown square. On Sundays, they work on a farm. In down time, occupiers drink coffee, play with pets, listen to music and prepare food.
The group hasn’t been without contention. The Facebook group was notoriously negative, something that organizers feel may have pushed many potential sympathizers away, and within the group itself there is fracture and dissidence.
In a quiet moment, during their General Assembly, organizer Andi K-Heart asks the question, “What are we doing here?”
No one answers.
She continues to say that she wishes they could see more things accomplished in their week of occupation.
Matt Garen speaks up, saying that just being accessible to the community is a success.
An organizer from Jonesboro suggests that the group disband until spring, that the urban model for occupying is incongruent with rural communities. No one answers. No one seems ready to admit defeat.
Sitting in a circle, shivering with cold, someone offers me a blanket. I am also offered coffee, food, and even a cigarette. Here, everything is for the sharing.
Sharing and taking turns is especially important in the discussion process, in which everyone sits in a circle and raises a hand to be acknowledged. It is a tedious method, and with the cold, rain and wind, it is also a test of patience and endurance.
Garen, who has a degree in English literature, quit his job to occupy full-time. “I believe to make changes, you can’t do it lying down,” he says. He wears a toboggan and light blue gloves with a hole along one of the thumbs. He says he thinks it’s important to put it all on the line, to be completely invested.
For Garen, finding a spot to occupy was the ultimate goal, and transitioning from protesting to occupying has been a “major relief.” He says that the sense of community created by camping together is a resource for connecting, not only with other people but also with nature.
“There’s no life indoors. It’s very human to be around other elements of nature.”
He says now that the group has occupied, he looks forward to reaching out to the community, offering help wherever it is needed. He says though they will continue to protest, they will focus on “helping their fellow man.”
“It seems more efficient to build things than to tear things down. The old system is breaking down already,” he says.
The occupiers participate in discussion groups and volunteer activities in hopes of building a better society. During these discussions, I am reminded of my conversations on the beach, but as those talks were leisurely, these are exercises. The terrain of conversation is much more grueling, as the discussion must take into account a dozen opinions instead of just two. It is much harder to reach consensus, much harder to stay on topic; and with new and old opinions fluttering in and out of the discussion — redundancy is to be expected.
In contrast to the hardships of the weather, individual conviction, and group solidarity — the camp offers a sense of comfort, compassion, and awareness.
As I am sitting with Garen, someone yells, “There’s a camel over here!”
We make our way down to Rock Street. Heart is already on the scene with her dog, and she is asking if
she can pet the camel.
“Not right now, ma’am. I’ve got to brush him,” replies the groomer.
“Can we help you brush him?” asks Heart.
It was such a simple, yet profound question; and it was asked with such sincerity, and with such joy that, to me, it was even more novel than two camels in the middle of the road on the square in Fayetteville, Ark.