I would have liked to know what the drummer hoped and what she expected. We will never know why she decided to take a drum to the central markets of Paris on Oct. 5, 1789, and why, that day, the tinder was so ready to catch fire from the drumbeat’s sparks.
To the beat of that drum, the working women of the marketplace marched all the way to the Palace of Versailles, a dozen miles away, occupied the seat of French royal power, forced the king back to Paris and breathed life into the French Revolution. It was one of those mysterious moments when citizens felt impelled to act and acted together, becoming in the process that mystical body, civil society, the colossus who writes history with her feet and crumples governments with her bare hands.
She strode out of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, during which parts of the central city collapsed along with the credibility and power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for 70 years. She woke up almost three years ago in North Africa, in what was called the Arab Spring, and became a succession of revolutions and revolts still unfolding across the region.
In the new space that appears after such transformative moments, however briefly, the old rules no longer apply. New rules may be written or a counterrevolution may be launched to bring back the old order, but the moment that counts is the one where civil society is its own rule, improvising the terms of an ideal society for a day, a month, a season, the 10-week duration of the Paris Commune of 1871 or the weeks or months that Occupy encampments blossomed in city parks across the United States.
Those who dismiss these moments because of their flaws need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have, historically, emerged because of them. Change is rarely as simple as dominoes. It can be as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution.
Sometimes the earth closes over these moments and they have no obvious consequences; but they can also become the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall and all those glorious insurrections in the Eastern Bloc in 1989. Empires can crumble and ideologies drop away like shackles unlocked.
I have often heard that Freedom Summer in Mississippi registered some voters and built some alliances in 1964, but that its lasting impact was on the young participants themselves. They were galvanized by a mission that stayed with them as they went on to do a thousand different things that mattered.
By such standards, when it comes to judging the effects of Occupy, it’s far too soon to tell what its lasting effects will be. But some things are already apparent.
Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, the national conversation changed and the brutality and obscenity of Wall Street were suddenly being openly discussed. The suffering of ordinary people crushed by the burden of medical, housing or college debt came out of the shadows.
California passed a homeowner’s bill of rights to curtail the viciousness of the banks, and in late 2012, Strike Debt emerged as an Occupy offshoot to address indebtedness in creative and subversive ways. Student debt suddenly became (and remains) a topic of national discussion, and proposals for student loan reform began to gain traction.
Invisible suffering was made visible. And, though Occupy was never primarily about electoral politics, it was nonetheless a significant part of the conversation that got Elizabeth Warren elected senator and prompted a few other politicians to do good things in the cesspit of the capital.
Change often happens when the brutality of the status quo is made visible and therefore intolerable. Thus did slavery become unacceptable to ever more non-slaves before the Civil War. Thus did the rights of many groups in this country — women, people of color, gay people, disabled people — grow exponentially. Thus did marriage stop being an exclusive privilege of heterosexuality, and earlier, thanks to feminism, a hierarchical relationship between a husband with owner’s rights and wife with the status of property.
Occupy Wall Street allowed those silenced by shame, invisibility or lack of interest from the media to speak up. As a result, the realities behind our particular economic game came to be described more accurately; so much so that the media and politicians had to change their language to adjust to a series of previously ignored realities.
Part of what gave Occupy its particular beauty was the way the movement defined “we” as the 99%. That phrase (along with that contagious meme “the 1%") entered our language, offering a far more inclusive way of imagining the world.
The encampments are now gone, but things that were born in them survive: coalitions and alliances and senses of possibility and frameworks for understanding what’s wrong and what could be right.
On this, the second anniversary of that day in Lower Manhattan when people first sat down in outrage and then stayed in dedication and solidarity and hope, remember them. Remember how unpredictably the world changes; remember those doing heroic work whom you might hear little about but who are all around you; remember to hope; remember to build; remember that Parisian drummer girl. Remember that you are, most likely, part of the 99%, and take up the burden that is also an invitation to change the world and occupy your dreams.
Rebecca Solnit, the author most recently of “The Faraway Nearby” spent time at Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street in 2011. This essay is adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider’s new book, “Thank You, Anarchy.” A longer version appears at tomdispatch.com