As of this writing, the Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading – some would say metastasizing – all over the country and now all over the world. The list of reasons I could choose not to participate is long: I have stacks and stacks and stacks of grading remaining to do; at 42, I’m too old to join what seems like a youth movement; Occupy’s lack of a coherent message makes it seem like a weekend project for disaffected millennials; the marchers and campers are predominantly white and I’m white, and I don’t want to live up to a stereotype of myself; and I’m just one person, so my presence doesn’t add much to the effort. Beyond the circumstances of this particular movement, I am not a person who enjoys being in crowds, shouting simplistic slogans, hearing ideas I believe in reduced to accusatory black-and-white statements, or listening to earnest speech after earnest speech after earnest speech. There are activists who enjoy activism, but I am not one of them.
But still, my life since the few days of abortive antiwar rallies in 1991 has been riddled with various protests. I have rallied in the dark, on glorious days and gray ones, and once in a deluge with Seattle police in riot gear standing shoulder to shoulder. I have been cheered and I have been heckled. I’m not going to pretend I’ve been out every weekend, and I’ve gone through long periods where it has seemed like writing letters to the editor is a better use of my time. Nevertheless, I was at the Occupy marches today, Saturday, October 15, representing the long-suffering 99% – even though I’m an employed, not particularly remarkable Gen-Xer who would just as soon have been enjoying the sunshine somewhere other than at the Washington Monument.
But still. I was there, well before I was inspired and well before horns started honking in support, before tourists gave us the thumbs-up from open-roofed buses, and before a yellow schoolbus full of kids hung out the windows to cheer us on, their faces painted with excitement. Before all that, I was there because, when voting is not enough, people have to vote with their words, and when that’s not enough, we have to vote with our feet. When I march, I am not expressing myself, but telling the world that I am part of a disregarded whole. I am doing my part to combat the media narrative that direct action and civil disobedience are committed only by the scruffy, the pierced, and the disreputable. If I am not there, my opinion is no better than if I didn’t give a rip, so I have a responsibility to support the causes I believe in. By showing up, I am telling the world that my point of view exists, even if it is destined to be defeated or diminished. I am telling the world that I am not going to go silently.
In this case, though, the simplicity of the message – we want governments to consider our welfare, not just corporate profits and political expediency – may end up surviving its assault by the media. What is frustrating about this movement is also what makes it unique: Rather than advocating a specific course of action, Occupy is challenging the cultural and political assumptions that individual rights can be sacrificed in the name of political stability. We are the 99%, and we finally spoke up for ourselves. If I can’t spend a few hours on a beautiful Saturday afternoon voicing my support for a more just world, why should I expect someone else to fight the fight on my behalf?