THIS is What Democracy Looks Like

Within 20 minutes of arriving at Occupy Chicago on Saturday, a guy walking by stopped and smiled. He sported a Guy Fawkes button and the seemingly requisite bandana around the neck, and his comfort navigating the throng on the corner of Lasalle and Jackson gave him away immediately as a constant.

“Hi,” he said. “Today your first time?”

“Yep,” I replied.

“What made you come down?”

I gave him my schpeel, and we were talking about corporate personhood and Citizens United v. the FEC when he asked, “What do you think about the Supreme Court Justice appointment process?”

It was off topic, but I was game. If you know me, you’re probably like, “Wow, Lauren talking politics with someone. How is that shocking again?” Let me put it this way- ten minutes later, all I could think about was the fact that I’d had one of the single most productive political theory conversations of my life with a complete stranger and I hadn’t even been at Occupy for more than an hour. Something was special here.

When you’re told that these protests are diverse, it doesn’t quite cover it. Yes, there are a wide variety of ethnicities, ages and political views represented, but it is the stories behind these demographics that weaves a rich and vibrant tapestry of rising above our differences. Grandmothers stood shoulder to shoulder with extensively tattooed environmentalists and public school teachers. Everyone had a different reason for being there, and everyone was excited to tell you about it.

And the signs- oh, the signs! The traditional battle calls of taxing the rich, punishing bankers and creating jobs were pervasive, but most were creatively tailored to the individual. Everyone had a camera, and every sign was photo-worthy. Hell, I had my picture taken quite a bit.

At around 3:30 PM, the anti-war protesters in the area joined us. The swell of people chanted in unison as anxious police officers looked on.

“Banks got bailed out- we got sold out!”

“Tell me what democracy looks like. THIS is what democracy looks like.”

“People over profit! Occupy Chicago!”

I stood next to a man with his own pest control business. As another small business owner dropped off sandwiches for the protesters, the pest control guy yelled at them to roll by.

“Hey, write down the number on the back of my shirt,” he said, turning. “I’m the owner. You call me, I’ll hook you up- free of charge.”

The food delivery folks smiled with gratitude. Like I said, something special was going on here.

There were Starbucks cups and iPhones everywhere you turned, and almost as many cameras as bodies. If pressured on their support of corporations, most shook their head, having to explain for close to the millionth time that the movement is not anti-business, or even anti-corporations, but anti-corporate governed governance. The ability to draw distinctions and defend their beliefs flew in the face of so much of the criticism that’s been leveraged against the movement.

Those who were there for the day were received with the same warmth as those who had been there for weeks. People walking buy would read your sign and nod their head in agreement. The more signs you read, the more passionate you became. This mattered.

As I ruminated on the experience, I came across a piece that helped crystallize it all. I’d seen so much good, but so much remained to be said, and then I read this. One of my favorite bloggers in the whole wide world is Josh Brown from The Reformed Broker. He’s brilliant, but more importantly, he’s authentic, honest and funny. You wouldn’t put him in the Occupy Wall Street camp intuitively- that’s the world he works in, after all- but he’s doing a better job than most of us at breaking it down to brass tacks. He wrote a scathing indictment the other day of Bank of America’s recent payment of $11 million to ousted executives, and he hit the nail on the head.

You pay fired executives more in severance than the average American worker will earn in a lifetime.  For most people on the outside looking in, this seems like it’s from outer space, another world entirely.  These numbers just do not exist to regular human beings, they cannot be fathomed.  The ordinary American is not a class warrior or a woe-is-me whiner coveting the rewards of others – the ordinary American simply believes that extraordinary rewards should go to those who do extraordinary things, not to paper-pushing failures at parasite banks.

So let me give you a hint that will save you countless hours and millions of dollars spent on consultants and the public relations morons you keep on staff:  This is why they hate you.  This very type of thing, while just a single example, epitomizes the piggish mentality that has set you apart from everyone else.  This is why they’re marching against you and calling for boycotts and writing their politicians.  And this is why your whole model and way of life is on its way to being dead.  Forever.

You want to roll your eyes and make snide remarks about “dumb college kids” and “socialists”?  Go ahead but you’re be missing the point.  Because it is the small business owner who’s really been wronged here, not the fringe elements you mockingly dismiss.  The business owner whose losses are not socialized like yours, the business owner without the government in his pocket, the business owner who is forced to play by the rules that you have paid to have written.  He’s not a hippie, he’s not a Marxist…but he’s waking up, dummy.

He gets it, and the fact that he gets it and has so eloquently portrayed what the movement has failed to cohesively project holds an important lesson for the movement. PLEASE do not marginalize based on profession. In Chicago, for instance, you’re protesting in front of the Chicago Board of Trade. Most of the people working in there are not going to be in that 1% you’re rallying against. Most of them are going to be people with their own credit card bills, mortgage payments and futures to plan for. Be careful not to push them away, because some of these folks could be exceedingly helpful in this push.

There’s one other thing I’d advise at this point for the Occupy movements. I get that this is a leaderless movement, and I can appreciate that. But at this point, you’re too big and this moment is too massive- you’ve got to find people to represent you in the media. Find someone who can effectively put your essence into words. Your message and emotions are powerful, but it’s not getting effectively funneled to the public. That’s the next step here. You’ve got 10k marching on a daily basis? Awesome. You’ve got another 100k nearby who can’t get out on the streets for various reasons but are open to your message. The only way they’re going to get it is if it’s being sent through a medium they use every day, and that means you need mainstream media exposure. And that means you need a voice to pitch.

I can hear the objections rumbling. Guys, I want you to think about it. Occupy Together lists over 1200 Occupy movements taking place today. Hundreds of thousands of people. This is bigger than any individual. I may not agree with everything everyone discusses at these occupations, but if I believe that these movements are supposed to represent the 99%, then the time has come to agree to disagree and really represent the people. If anything, the diversity of opinions here is what makes us so strong. When a socialist can raise their voice with a tried and true capitalist to decry an injustice, something special is happening. 

Saturday was unforgettable, but the coming days and weeks could be transformational. This is about policy reform- I don’t think anyone can deny that- but it’s also about us as a people. It’s about rediscovering our voice, waking up from the stupor we’ve walked around in for the past several decades, and, as one, acknowledging that this is not a government we consent to. It’s about acknowledging that the people we have elected to represent us in Washington D.C. have long since abandoned our best interests. It’s about acknowledging that we can’t go back to sleep again.

There is a revolution brewing here, and it is bigger than the banks, and too fierce to fail. We, as a people, are demanding a return to reason. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud to be an American.


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