Occupy Austin and idealism: A seasoned protestor evaluates the grassroots groupgathering
I’ve been to plenty of protests and demonstrations in this town, but I’ve never been to one like Occupy Austin.
In the late afternoon on Thursday, there were over a thousand people on the grounds of City Hall, carrying signs and milling about, posing for pictures and waiting for their turn to speak into the microphone set up by the steps. By two in the morning, the livestream of the demonstration online showed a few dozen people still out, dancing and otherwise having fun together late into the night.
Those details don’t tell the whole story, though. Neither do the quick descriptions of what people were doing. Occupy Austin, and the Occupy Wall Street movement that it’s a part of, defy the easy descriptions—it’s not about the fact that a thousand people showed up to participate, though that’s important. It’s not about the signs they carried, or the fact that a lot of them were dreadlocked white UT kids. (So many of them weren’t, though, too—the number of people of color, people of different ages, people who obviously belong to different social groups, was shocking.)
Ultimately, it’s about—well, who knows? And right now, that’s the point.
In the '50s and '60s, mass public protests were an effective means of communication. The joke on activists ever since has been that the influence they’re capable of wielding has dwindled even as their numbers have spiked. Groups of hundreds of thousands gathered in cities around America in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, only to be dismissed as a “focus group” by the President and ridiculed or ignored in the press. In the end, well, we still went to war.
So activists, for over a generation, have either played a losing game, or sought a way to change the way the game is played. And most of the criticism—of both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Austin—comes from people who deride the movement as lacking cohesion and lacking a goal. Or, in other words, of not doing all of the things that have made protests, for decades, something that’s easy to dismiss.
Heading down to Occupy Austin, my expectations were low. For the most part, I discovered how ineffective public demonstrations were a few years ago, and didn’t anticipate this one being anything different. I expected the same chants—“This is what democracy looks like!” “The people! United! Can never be defeated!” etc, etc—and the same tired preaching-to-the-choirness of the whole thing that’s made it all so boring.
What I found was a little bit different. There was no march, no chanting. There was a very civil General Assembly meeting at 3 pm that followed an order that was largely efficient, and didn’t get caught up on people’s pet issues or rambly, semi-coherent personal narratives. The demonstrators all seemed quite serious about what they were doing, but not to the point of taking themselves seriously. (In addition to the ever-popular “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” banners, other signs expressed sentiments like “Eat your vegetables” and “Signs: $50.”) There was a lot of music and smiling, and a surprising amount of frivolity. That is to say, it wasn’t the same band of self-righteous kids and ancient hippies, gathered together to demand change that they all knew, deep down, wouldn’t be coming.
And without that sense of futility, Occupy Austin’s got something else growing, instead. It’s not exactly optimism, but it might be even more important: it’s a belief in community.
Being at Occupy Austin feels much less like a protest or a demonstration designed to reach an end-goal and much more like being at a town hall meeting. Part of that is inherent to the structure of the thing, which is open-ended. The Facebook event page lists its end-date as December 6th, two months from when it began, though it’s possible things will last much longer.
It’s also possible, of course, that they’ll close up in a few days—that’s the risk of not quite knowing what this thing is going to be yet—but based on what I saw today, I don’t expect that. Because what’s been missing, for a long time, from the protests and demonstrations, is a sense of inclusiveness. The crowd didn’t rush to confrontation with the police—nobody was gearing up their chants of “This is what a police state looks like!” In fact, the signs at City Hall that condemned the NYPD also added, “God Bless APD”; another exhorted, “Police and military, we need you,” while a smiling Chief Art Acevedo posed for pictures with the people gathered.
For the moment, the strength of the Occupy movement—whether it’s in Austin, New York, or any of the other cities that have launched satellite demonstrations—is that it’s something just a little bit new. Being at City Hall feels a bit like being on Twitter, but in person. The conversation flows easily, and even if it’s largely still jokes and talking points, there’s reason to believe that, if everybody is still there a week from now, they’ll have cut down on that and started being a bit more genuine. One of the common complaints about our socially-networked world is that we’re growing increasingly isolated, and the Occupy movement, right now, is poised to address that before it addresses anything else. It’s bringing people—an awful lot of people—to the same space, and it doesn’t attempt to tell them what to do, or what they’re supposed to be trying to accomplish. The people who are doing that right now are people who disapprove of its existence, which the demonstrators ought to find encouraging.
Here’s an old cliché: Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s possible that one of the reasons so many of the protest movements of the past several decades have failed is because the change that people have wanted hasn’t looked like a bunch of angry people loudly declaring what they’re against. What Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Austin and the rest of the people calling themselves “The 99%” say they want is a fundamental change in the way our process of determining power works. By showing up in the same place and talking together, and building in room for smiling, music and fun, rather than making demands, shouting slogans and condemning the awfulness of society, it seems like they’re starting with themselves first.
There’ve been worse ideas.