Saturday, October 15, 2011

What do They Want?

It seems to be a mystery to almost everyone - what do they want? Why don't they give out a list of demands? How can they possibly think they will accomplish anything if there is no structure, no leadership, no plan? Who benefits from OWS - Republicans or Democrats? How could this possibly last more than a few weeks without leaders, specific goals, timetables, or organization?

If you were asked to write a short, descriptive note describing Occupy Wall Street, what would you say? Or try this: I will give a short list of questions about OWS. Try to answer them for yourself. And then I will give my perspective. This does not mean that I am right, that I know the right answer. Not at all. I will simply give you my personal perspective, in the form of my answers to my questions. Here we go:

          1. Have you ever been in a similar group, movement or protest?
          2. What do you most clearly remember from the experience?
          3. What was more important: the broad vision and dream or the specific goals and objectives?
          4. How did you generate commitment from group participants?
          5. Did the group hold together in tough times?
          6. Now, in the case of OWS, what are the "deep currents" that power the movement?
          7. Why don't they develop and present plans, specific demands?
          8. Why are there no leaders? no apparent structure?
          9. Is this class warfare?
          10. Shouldn't the protesters stop complaining, suck it up, and just get back to work?
          11. Who wins from this - Democrats or Republicans?
          12. Will any of this make any difference?

And now for my perspective. I will answer the first five questions as a group:

I have not been part of a protest movement. I graduated in 1963, spent the next four years in the Navy, then two years in Business School. The Protest 60s' completely passed me by. I remember being in Chicago in the summer of 1968, in between years of B-School, when the Democratic Convention protests were going on, and I was completely clueless, not angry at one side or the other, just unaffected, a bit befuddled. It's embarrassing to admit now, but I was focusing on my career path, and had not woken up politically. The political awakening was a long time in coming, and finally arrived during the Iraq war, with Abu Ghraib and the torture conversations.

But I have experienced a small-scale, localized "movement", in the form of a small group coming together in the late 80s' to try and build a world-class aquarium in Tampa, Florida. We wanted to build a great aquarium dedicated to telling the Florida Water Story, starting with rain, the freshwater system - beginning with the spongelike underground aquifer that contained a huge amount of freshwater (and made for amazing cave diving) - to the estuarine system, where fresh met salt water in mangrove swamps and marshes, out to the barrier islands and finally to the reef systems which could be found off the coast, most beautifully in the gorgeous reefs off the Dry Tortugas.

When our small band first came together in mid-1987, all the experts, financial folk, and political leaders in Tampa told us it was a splendid idea, but that neither the City nor the community had the resources to fund such a project. In spite of this sound advice, we were not to be deterred. We thought of ourselves as "impossible dream builders"; we certainly had plans and strategies, but the force that held us together through thick and thin was our individual and collective commitment to the "dream" - to build a world-class aquarium in Tampa, telling the Florida Water Story, that would educate and entertain. and most of all, would make a difference in the world.

What was interesting about the "dream" aspect was that each of us could and did interpret this in our own way: for me, it was a kind of Nature Church - a sort of Chartres/Monterey Aquarium combination; for some, committed to education, it was an amazing, new educational resource for children and families; and for many, it was a powerful economic development vehicle that could (and did) energize Tampa's waterfront.

Everything began and was sourced by this commitment. We assembled a first-rate team of design and engineering professionals, so we had the requisite knowledge and expertise. But what made the difference when we lost our funding, or when the mayor decided for a time to withdraw her support, or when our original development partner pulled out, and we lost our site, was this fierce, very personal commitment to do something good, and worthy, and lovely.

And something else: We operated "in circle". Everyone listened to everyone else. We were undeclared warriors fighting to find, build and protect the Grail. We were all Knights Circler - by which I mean, we had all drunk from the same cup of commitment; we each had sworn an unsworn oath of commitment; so everyone deserved to be heard. A critical exhibit design problem in our largest tank was solved by an idea from our cost estimator. And so it went.

When disaster struck, as it did quite frequently, we would gather together and ask of the Circle, "What next?" And we carried on, even if that meant simply waiting, without disbanding our teams, when all funding dried up for a while.

Ideas, new money, new supporters, new paths and possibilities would just "show up", which, after a while, we took to be expected and ordinary miracles. For a time, we all experienced the joy of powerful shared community, working together to accomplish something important, and noticing that we could begin to "walk on water".

If you've been blessed to have been involved in a super high-performing team, you will know what I am trying to describe. There is an intensity of engagement that is breathtaking, joyful. You would die for a fellow team member, and sometimes you do. Miracles happen. Predictably. There are excellent plans, extraordinary blueprints and designs; but these emerge out of the embodied and deeply felt commitment, not out of the Mind alone. Body/Heart/Mind/Spirit working together, integrally - never separately.

And as this is true individually, it becomes true collectively. The Listening in the Circle is deep and profound. There is a Leader - that was my role; I was the (mostly unpaid) Founding Executive Director. But I knew nothing about aquariums, except that I loved them. And I had none of the other forms of power (money, political connections, etc.). So I had to "let go" and mostly give up my Prussian General self (I was so anointed in B-School). There was no point to the Circle. So nothing could impede the energy.

Miraculous. Breathtaking. Unforgettable. And on a much larger scale, this is what I see in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Matt Stoller, writing for Naked Capitalism, nailed it when  he called Occupy Wall Street a Church of Dissent, not a Protest Movement. Churches are homes, sanctuaries of the sacred. The Deep and Sacred Current that flows through the Occupy Wall Street movement is Human Dignity, Connection and Justice. This is the Deep Voice.

Specific "demands" are secondary. They will emerge, lots of them probably, and they may, on the surface, appear unconnected, disjointed, and, at the very least, completely unrealistic. It's simply not about the demands. It's about the speaking, after, perhaps being silent for a long time. And when others hear you, and then you speak together, it is absolutely thrilling. Can you feel this somewhere in your body, where all deep memories are stored? If you can then you don't need my written explication. If you can't, then nothing much I could write will convince you.

Will this become an enduring movement? I don't know. Even fully committed dreamers don't like to sleep outside in the snow. So the Occupation in a physical, geographic sense may well end; but, as the eternal optimist, I will affirm that I believe something has changed, shifted. The ground we walk on together has moved a bit; and now different energies and new possibilities are present. If the Occupation geographically ends, many people will no longer notice, or feel any ongoing effects. But for those in the movement, life will no longer be quite the same. This was true in the 60s', with the anti-war movement that so totally passed me by. Once you have fully expressed your voice to the world, nothing is ever really the same.

Why are there no leaders? Because they are not necessary for what is emerging. As I said above, leaders can often (certainly not always) distort the energy, "point the circle". Can this endure without leadership? It depends on what you mean by endure - does something that will never leave the heart and body of someone who committed to OWS - is that enduring? I say it is, even if there are no follow-on political effects (though I'm fairly sure there will be those effects). This is a case where the tree can be alone and fall in the wilderness, and yes, it does make a sound that makes a difference.

Is this class warfare? My grandfather used to say, "When in doubt, take it as a compliment." This is only class warfare if the top tier financial elites choose to see it as such. When people speak their dignity into the world, it is only an insult to someone else if they choose to take it as such.

Who wins - Democrats or Republicans? Whoever authentically connects with the underlying energy. Remember, these folks are as mad at Obama for coddling the banks as they are at Republicans. So far the Democrats seem much more adept at connecting with the energy, yet seeming to understand they cannot, and should not try to coopt it.

Shouldn't these protesters just stop complaining? After what I have written, this question is obviously just silly.

Will this make a difference in some enduring way? My answer is yes, though much of the effect may not be visible. Here are a few useful links:

Lambert Strether liveblogging yesterday's events. Full of good additional links.

The Occupy Together Field Manual for General Assembly. An amazing "instruction manual" for General Assemblies that create synthesis, a true "coming together", not additive agglomeration, piling different, unconnected things together.

Here's What Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About, an extraordinary mega-blogpost by Henry Blodgett of Business Insider, with a large collection of data charts documenting the new levels of inequality in the US.

Reign of the One Percenters, a trenchant article in Orion Magazine by Christopher Ketcham demonstrating the perverse and corrosive effects of income inequality.

Keep the Protests Going, a typically tin-eared conservative republican response to the protests. In this case Boortz argues that if the protests continue, this will drive Obama out of office, just as the anti-war protests in the late sixties drove the Democrats out and opened the door for Nixon.

I will close with a few lines from a poem by my favorite poet and friend David Whyte. This comes from "The Opening of Eyes", found in The House of Belonging.

"...I knew then, as I had before,
that life is no passing memory of what has been,
nor the remaining pages of a great book,
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart, after years of secret conversing
speaking aloud for the first time..."

And finally, a picture of The Florida Aquarium:

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