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Welcome to the Occupation

Occupy Love gets a cynical OWS tourist thinking differently

by Dru Oja Jay

Welcome to the Occupation
Welcome to the Occupation

It was October of 2011, and as luck would have it, I was passing through New York City. Occupy Wall Street had been going for a few weeks, and had gained significant momentum. Hundreds attended the nightly general assembly; committees met in circles scattered throughout the park; speakers addressed an electrified and ever-changing crowd through the "people's mic," hundreds repeating each sentence. The unstoppable drum circle at the south end of the park thrummed in the background.

Like any OWS tourist, I marvelled at the wonders of consensus decisionmaking among people who had become politicized in the last week or two, and the celebrity visits  (Michael Moore ambled through the park with a crowd of followers, Michael Franti played an impromptu concert, and no one seemed to recognize Naomi Klein, who was slated to speak the following day). Free food and donations flooded in, and the incredible energy was sustained by global attention and a constant flow of visitors.
But what struck me most deeply wasn't any of those things. 
Seized by the spirit of OWS, I stumbled into conversation with a young man from New Jersey with a wide-eyed look that indicated a very recent and very ongoing politicization. Slogans shouted at me from pins on his coat. My first impression was that he was basically clueless. He announced that he was there to "keep American jobs in America." Curious, I asked him --  gently -- what he thought about the rights of migrant labourers and what effect protectionist policies would have on people US corporations were exploiting elsewhere. He froze up, unable to formulate a response. Wanting to understand more of his perspective and a little thrown by how quickly I had put him on the defensive, I tried a different tack. "Some people say," I offered, "that economic growth is destroying the environment in catastrophic ways, and the economic system itself has to be changed."
This was far beyond any analysis he had so far considered. "I don't know anything about those things," he said, a bit flustered. But then he added: "What's important is that we're all here, discussing these problems and coming up with solutions together."
At first, I didn't think much of the conversation. He reminded me of the inexperienced protesters cynical journalists usually seek out at protests in order to better dismiss them. Like that poor sap in a turtle costume at a the WTO protest whose opinion that the WTO is "anti-turtle" was quoted in a national magazine. Surely, I thought, this guy's fate is to end up as fodder for an ambitious New York Times reporter looking to impress an editor.
But his statement stuck with me, and increasingly, it struck me as quite remarkable. Political activity is about certainty, about being on top of the facts and getting to the bottom things. There is little room for uncertainty, and less margin for error. If we get a fact wrong or generalize, our best case scenario is that reporters will sneer at us, that our adversaries will seize on a misplaced number or an innaccurate quote. Ideally, we do media trainings and triple-check our facts to avoid that situation.
And yet a few blocks from Wall Street, the epicentre of global commerce, arguably the media capital of the western world, a kid from New Jersey feels comfortable sharing the vulnerability of his ignorance with a complete stranger. Not only that, but he affirms his willingness to learn, to share his self with hundreds of other strangers. To open to the unknown, and the world as it is.
Some critics say that Occupy was obsessed with process. But proponents of Occupy such as the ones featured in Occupy Love point to a deeper meaning to the focus on process over results or demands. This attitude indicates trust in other human beings, an openness to outcomes not being predetermined, and a committment to inclusiveness. To make this work, you need some kind of collective goodwill. A trust in our connectedness. A willingness to deeply empathize. Ok, I'll say it. Love!
But I wouldn't have said it (or much of what's written above) before I saw the remarkable film Occupy Love.
Filmmaker Velcrow Ripper visited Occupy Wall Street as part of a twelve-year journey exploring the connection between spirituality and activism that had already yielded two films, Scared Sacred and Fierce Light. This lens gave him an insight that hardened leftists and other observers have largely left implicit, missed altogether, or relegated to old Che Guevara quotes: what gives meaning to our willingness to fight, and to our pain at the suffering and destruction wrought in the name of profit, is love. When we acknowledge and cultivate a movement as a sort of love story, Ripper argues, new possibilities emerge, and the unimaginable becomes the everyday.
Occupy Love, Ripper's latest film, tells this fairytale of Occupy from the perspective of Egyptian and American activists, with detours to Hawai'i, the Tar Sands, Greenland and Toronto, interviews with philosophers, Buddhist teachers, Cree elders, literary luminaries, journalists, and activists, and names like Klein, hooks, Solnit, Rifkin, Eisenstein and Dellinger.
At first, I was dubious. The language of love is, I thought, hackneyed and worse for wear. Hearts and soft-lit memes with inspiring quotes, I thought, are what the L-word primarily evokes. But Ripper defies the odds that are currently stacked against earnestness, and the movie makes a broad, beautiful, soaring and eloquent argument for placing love at the centre of our understanding of what moves people to make revolution.
Visits to and explanations of Occupy Wall Street form a sort of launch pad for various flights into the meaning of love in an era marked by an evolve-or-die mandate for social movements, and for humanity.
The result is breadth, not depth. It's a feverish and lucid run of free-association that evokes the all-night conversations of a new romance. It's a heaping buffet table of food for thought. 
Portraits of participants in the Tahrir Square uprising give way to a quick explanation of neoliberalism, we make a quick stop in Greenland to discuss climate change, Rebecca Solnit quotes Pablo Neruda ("you can cut the flowers, but you can't stop the spring"), bell hooks makes the link back to neoliberalism ("forming connection, learning together... is exactly the opposite of what dominative culture would have us be about"), evolutionary theory sheds light on competition, giant flocks of birds teach us about distributed decisionmaking and emergent behaviour, Naomi Klein tells us about the enourmous task ahead of us ("what we're trying to do has never been done before") and then it's back into someone's tent a few blocks from Wall Street ("ends and mean are the same thing," Pancho Ramos Stierle tells us). Not satisfied with the talking head documentary format, Ripper makes use of every moment of our visual attention to juxtapose thought-provoking visual metaphors and beautiful footage with the stream of words.
In between, we get the distilled reflections of some thoughtful people. Here's Charles Eisenstein, who is featured in the Occupy Love trailer, on the philosophical underpinnings of a society that is connected, not alienated: "It's really hard to create community if the underlying knowledge is 'we don't need each other.' ... joint consumption doesn't create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection."
"If there wasn't so much love, there wouldn't be so much pain," Drew Dellinger tells us at one point. Those looking for a thorough analysis of the crisis we face will be disappointed by this film. For those who have a good number of searing critiques and incisive polemics under their belts, Occupy Love is a great way to get some of those all-night discussions started.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Member since January 2008


Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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