Occupy Wall Street: Civil society’s awakening

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Last week I awoke in Zuccotti Park to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and started up again early the next morning. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously. If you doubted whether the movement was powerful or mattered, just look at the reaction to people camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.

Occupy Wall Street: An Op-Ed on Nov. 22 mistakenly put the writer of the essay in Zuccotti Park last week. She was in Lower Manhattan but not in the park. —

Of course, “camped out” doesn’t quite catch the spirit of those who have come together to bear witness, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but they are symbols of the way those of us in civil society have awoken.

Think of civil society and the state as joined in a marriage of necessity. You already know who the wife is, the one who is supposed to love, cherish and obey: that’s civil society. Think of the state as the domineering husband who expects to have a monopoly on power, on violence, on planning and policymaking.


Of course, he long ago abandoned his actual wedding vows. He left home a long time ago to have a sordid affair with the Fortune 500, but he still has the firm conviction that we should remain faithful — or else. The post-9/11 era was when we began to feel the consequences of all this, and the 2008 economic meltdown brought it all home to roost.

Think of Occupy Wall Street, of all the occupations around the country, as the signal that the wife, Ms. Civil Society, has finally acknowledged that those vows no longer bind her either.

Perhaps this is one reason why the Occupy movement seems remarkably uninterested in electoral politics although it is political in every possible way. It is no longer appealing to that violent, errant husband. It has turned its back on him — thus the much-decried lack of “demands” early on, except for the obvious demand that so many pundits pretended not to see: the demand for economic justice.

Still, Ms. Civil Society is not asking for any favors: She is setting out on her own, to make policy on a small scale through the model of the general assembly and on a larger scale by withdrawing deference from the institutions of power. (In one symbolic act of divorce, nearly three-quarters of a million Americans reportedly have moved their money from big banks to credit unions since Occupy Wall Street began.) The philandering husband doesn’t think the once-cowed wife has the right to do any of this, and he’s been striking back. Literally.

The Occupy movement has decided, on the other hand, that it doesn’t matter what he thinks.

Veterans, students, their grandparents, the hitherto apolitical, the unionized, the employed and unemployed, all ages and colors have come to realize that Mr. Unaccountable is the dependent one, the one who rules at their will and lives off their labor, taxes and productivity. Mr. Unaccountable isn’t anywhere near as independent as he imagines. The corporations give him treats and big campaign donations, but they too depend on consumers, workers and ultimately citizens who may yet succeed in reining them in.


In the meantime, the domestic-violence-prone domineering state is squandering a fortune on the extravagance of police brutality and wrongful arrests. New York City — recall those pepper-sprayed captive young women, that legal observer with a police scooter parked on top of him, and all the rest — you’re going to have a giant bill due in court. Oakland, you paid out more than $2 million for the behavior of the police at a nonviolent protest after the invasion of Iraq — did you learn nothing from it?

Perhaps being frightened makes the authorities foolish. They are fighting fire with gasoline. After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart, they’d try to soothe it back to sleep.)

“Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can’t arrest an idea!” said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park on Thursday. At UC Berkeley, setting up tents on the campus was forbidden, so the brilliant young Occupiers used clusters of helium balloons to float tents overhead. Occupy Oakland has been busted twice and reborn twice, and still it thrives. To say nothing of the other 1,600 Occupations in the growing movement.

Now everyone is trying to figure out what happens next, and quite a few self-appointed outside advisors are telling the Occupy movement exactly what to do (without all the bother of attending general assemblies and engaging in the process of working out ideas together). So far, the Occupy instigators and insiders have been doing a brilliant job of improvising a way that civil society can move forward into the unimaginable.

As for me, my hope is grounded in the fact that history is wilder than our imagination of it, and the unexpected shows up far more regularly than we ever dream. No one imagined an Arab Spring a year ago, and no one imagined this American Fall — even the people who began planning for it this summer. We don’t know what’s coming next, and that’s the good news.

My advice is general: Dream big. Occupy your hopes. Talk to strangers. Live in public. Don’t stop now.


Alexander Dubcek, the government-official-turned-hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, once said, “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.”

I’m sure of one thing: There are a lot more flowers coming.

Rebecca Solnit, the author of “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster,” has participated in Occupy encampments in Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. A longer version of this article appears at