Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupying Together (Once You Really Get Down to it) & Shadow

It’s getting late and we really should leave McPherson Park, but it’s hard to tear away from, even though every thirty minutes or so the cops pull up with lots of lights and sound and cars, park for a couple of moments, and then streak off in an equally abrasive and confusing rush.  There are at least 200 people in the park, many clustered in a circle near the main space playing music, singing, and clapping.  Banjo is on banjo, of course, giving the jam Americana-bluegrass sound, and I find myself torn between feeling like it’s completely incongruous or utterly apropos.  He’s wearing black jeans patched with screen-dyed patches and held up by suspenders over a plaid flannel shirt, giving him the look of a steampunk depression-era anarchist railroad worker. 

Around him, a couple of folks tap on drums and buckets or strum guitars, and after a final look I decide the street-music with a tinge of Appalachia is the perfect soundtrack for this scene, no question about it.  We are truly witnessing the birth of a new America, and a new generation of young people are guiding us towards our future by simultaneously recalling the ancient land-based culture we have forsaken and tapping the technology of the day: learning to grow and can food, raise chickens, and save seeds while using the democracy of the internet, the sacred witnessing of livestreaming, and maifestos written on blogs and published through facebook to spread the word of a new movement. 

A small circle of young men, clearly drunk, is in the center of the park, and occasionally the Occupy DC folks glance at them over their shoulders, grumble, and go back to what they are doing.  These four guys have just showed up tonight and already caused one physical altercation, but no one quite knows what to do about it.  Some folks suspect them of being provocateurs, but whether or not that’s true doesn’t get us any closer to finding a way to deal with them effectively. 

(Sometimes people believe activists are paranoid to be so worried about provocateurs or unwilling to see those who do commit acts of violence and destruction in their own midsts, and, well, maybe we are.  But just this week an associate editor of the right-wing rag American Spectator, Patrick Howley, posted in his blog an account of how he “infiltrated” Stop the Machine with the express intent of discrediting them and causing chaos and mayhem at a protest, which indeed did end when the guards he charged at sprayed the crowds with pepper spray.  His article is full of slander and lies, but one thing that makes it worth reading is that yours truly has a bit part in it, in which he flatteringly but mistakenly calls me a red-haired twenty something just out of grad school). 

The drunk ruffians pose an interesting dilemma in the midst of the sweet music-making scene because sure, many of us would be happy to toss them out of the park, but aren’t they also part of the “ninety-nine percent” we’ve been chanting about all week?  As far as that goes, aren’t folks who are mentally unstable, folks who exhibit tendencies towards sexism and racism, folks who speak with spite and anger about the police and politicians, and, perhaps the worst of all crimes, folks who refuse to learn and properly use consensus process – that sacred process that has been passed down from activist to activist for generations – aren’t all of these folks still part of the ninety-nine percent? 

Well, they certainly are, but on the other hand, they can make the lives of organizers and facilitators much more difficult and can turn quick thirty minute meetings into sagas that last for hours. Or, as in this case, they can pose various kinds of danger – physical danger, the danger of added police presence, a danger to our reputation and popularity with the media and with folks who generally aren’t amused by activists, which is where a lot of our power lies.  In the media, the Occupy movement is being billed as the first populist movement since the 1930s, but as with all popular movements and especially those that endeavor to work through non-hierarchical structures, it’s clear to me that the Occupy Together groups are starting to have to face the reality that it is downright difficult to reach our ideal of bringing together from all walks of life, with disparate belief systems, communication styles, education and cultural backgrounds, etc. into one force that can challenge those in power and lead to laws and policies that serve a united majority and our sweet garden planet home rather than the rich minority.  What’s even more frustrating is that in order to dissipate our movement, proponents for individualism and competition don’t need to do anything – the onus is on us to change the societal story, to override our cultural conditioning and personal vulnerabilities and make something transformational happen.

(If somehow you’re out of the loop and don’t get the whole 99% thing, the short version is that it’s a reference to the vast inequality of wealth distribution in this country, where 1% of the population holds 34% of the total net worth of the United States, and the top 10% of the population has 39% of America’s wealth, leaving 90% of us to divvy up a mere 27% of all of the money in the richest country in the world.  

Today, I read a blog post by pagan author T. Thorn Coyle, who talks about her own experience working on Wall St. years ago and challenges us to look at both the dark and the bright in ourselves and our groups when dealing with issues of togetherness and cohesion with diversity. 

“Change is in our hearts and hands. Change is in my heart and hands. Change is in us all.  Can we come together?” she asks.  “There is a light and corresponding shadow everywhere. Nothing is clear, and clean, and in a little compartment. Life is messy and intertwined. Light and shadow are not discrete beings, but bound to one another.”

As the days pass here in DC, I see the light and shadow of unity and alienation overlaid in every interaction: those between Jason and me, within the beautiful witches in the Pagan Cluster, in the general assembly meetings at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square, in the hesitation of friends who email me and ask, “Should I really bother to put myself out for this?  Is this going to be any different then all of those other things we thought we really change things but never did?” 

This week, people that I love and have worked with for years have suddenly without warning criticized me for taking too much leadership, for being in my power and stepping out as a trainer and leader.  I’ve facilitated meetings where people openly disparaged my skill and walked out rather than gently proposing process suggestions or taking a breath and waiting to see where it would go.  In conversations on the margins of the crowds, people admit sheepishly about feeling left out for being the vegan, the queer, the heterosexual, the anarchist punk, the suburban mom, the elder with decades of experience, the young kid stepping out into the world of activism for the first time.  These moments are the shadows of unity – moments that show us the growing edges of where we need to go and teach us the tools that we need to develop in order to get there. 

I’m not trying to air the dirty laundry of the Occupy Movement or even to offer gentle, loving criticism -- I lead a lot of transformational work in my life, at spiritual retreats and beyond, and one thing I’ve noticed is that we all want the deep work of great change but we are never actually prepared for how hard its going to be, or how our personal shadows can snake through even the most conscious intentions to ambush us from behind.  And that’s how its supposed to be. We can imagine what it would feel like to be our biggest, brightest selves, and we can envision what this world would be like if we could truly come together to heal, protect, and nourish our communities and ecosystems, but it’s the dirty, difficult work of wading through the shadows that gives us the skills, capacities, and tools to manifest them and get to the next level.  We may have a sense of the what, but the how comes with the journey, developed through the growing pains of evolution.  Part of that growth process is shining a bright light into the shadows, not to dis-spell their darkness, but to see what is there and what we can learn from diving deep into them. 

So, it makes perfect sense that in creating a movement based on unity-with-diversity, I’ve found myself experiencing and moving through my own stories about being the smart kid in class that always gets put down for being too much of an overachiever and, paradoxically, also those stories that I have about not being good enough.  And sometimes drunk young men show up at our encampments and we need to find ways to include them while also creating boundaries that keep us safe and safeguard the beautiful work we’re doing.  It means that sometimes we have to dump the sacred concensus process because people just don’t get it, and may even openly disparage us at meetings for trying to impose it upon them.  Sometimes we’ll have two different occupying groups in the same town with General Assembly meetings at the exact same time, and neither one will want to change it (hypothetically speaking, of course).  Sometimes we’ll have to ask ourselves if we can collaborate with a group that doesn’t share all our values.  This is just as much a part of creating the world that we want as showing up at Congress or blockading the banks – perhaps even more so.  It’s both the true potential and the vulnerability of a movement who, at it’s heart, is about uniting the ninety-nine percent.

“Changing culture is up to us,” Thorn says.  “Every action takes a willingness to risk… Nor does it all feel fated…It takes us all, each of us, to look inside and say, ‘Where can I begin?’”

Oh, and just so you know, we didn’t end up throwing the drunk kids out of the park.  We did what any good activist lefty group does – we held a meeting about it the next day.

In love and solidarity,


  1. "we all want the deep work of great change"... If only that were true. Then, when the shadows reared up, people would do the deep work.

    Keep up the good fight.

  2. Thank you for an insightful perspective of what many of us on the edges are feeling as we try to find our place in the movement.

    I think we all need to stand in our power and remember that essentially everyone we see around us is part of the 99%.

    Many do not know or remember what it is like to live free and govern ourselves. But welcoming all who declare themselves part of the movement and integrating them in, is perhaps our biggest priority.


  3. Thanks for that write up, it's very clarifying to see what the DC actions are really all about. It's good to know that even Patrick Howley will have a voice (and maybe even a slice of pizza) after he puts his own 99% story up on the Tumblr page. I do have a not rhetorical question: how do you reorient society around people who are in and will stay in opposition to what you're doing?


  4. Tarin,
    I really do think that's what's happening, that collectively we're finally doing this deep work because we're realizing we don't have any other choice if we want to make it. And, when I don't believe it, I chose to align myself with that belief anyway, because it makes it possible for me to keep doing this. Faith is not a spectator sport but an active practice, I think. At least for me it is.

    Calliope, what beautiful words...
    "Many do not know or remember what it is like to live free and govern ourselves. But welcoming all who declare themselves part of the movement and integrating them in, is perhaps our biggest priority."

    So true. We are learning to live free, and trying to pick up those pieces of ourselves we gave up along the way in order to fit into this world that seemed to demand we do so...

    And Aaron, how the heck am I supposed to know? I'm still trying to figure it out myself. What I try and remember is what Joanna Macy told me when I asked her that very thing, and she drew a spectrum on the board where part of it was the folks that already agree with us, and part of it was the folks who mostly agree, and those that mostly disagree, and those that will never agree... She said to focus on the first three and forget the last, because eventually they'll die off anyway. True story. ;-)

    Blessings to you all,

  5. I am really appreciating your blog. I wonder if you'd consider changing the background so it would be easier to read?

    Thank you so much for all you do. As a single parent and a teacher, I haven't felt the space in my life to join in ... yet.

  6. Nice article. The time has come for the movement to set in motion the changes that are needed. We as Americans have lost most of our rights. Our employers can and do what ever they feel is necessary indifferent to how the employee feels. We need representation in all employments without it we are just a bunch of puppets. I have a question to the White House, why are we sending millions of dollars to countries who really do not like us? Why are we responsible for the rebuilding of the countries we are at war in? We help everyone and who comes to our aid when its needed. What right do we have to enter another country and demand a change in the way they live? Is democracy really something we need to spread to the world? Lets take care of our own fist and only then look abroad.

    The time has come for all Americans to stand together shoulder to shoulder and tell Washington “We have had enough” The 99% is awake and will remain awake until the greed and pilfering ends. We the people is what makes America great not the corporations, the banks and the insurance companies.

    The time had come for the movement to make know its demands and work together to achieve them.

  7. The time has come for the movement to make known its demands and work together to achieve them.

    Sorry for the incorrect spelling

  8. Flu season is beginning and assemblies are an ideal venue for spreading the disease. Protesters who find vaccines acceptable should get immunized as soon as possible.

  9. Hi Riyana. Trying to find a way to contact you. Have a media inquiry regarding DC. Would you please drop me a line at cheryl@opednews.com or direct me to your contact info? Thank you.
    Cheryl Biren