Civil Society at Ground Zero: You Can Crush the Flowers, But You Can’t Stop the Spring

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By Rebecca Solnit

Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of
helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then
started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of
Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City.
It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities
take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake
what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were
powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you
(or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland,
Tucson to Manhattan.

Of course, “camped out” doesn’t quite catch the spirit of the moment,
because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear
witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and
discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make
clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that
support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it
an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of
the way we have awoken.

When civil society sleeps, we’re just a bunch of individuals absorbed
in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere,
when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities
are terrified. They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for
violence and for hypocrisy.

Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of
people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the
police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a
young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they
slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the
NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall
this item included in a bald list of events that night: “tear-gassing
the kitchen tent.” Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be
attacked with chemical weapons?

Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a
three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen
ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed
in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC
Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as
disposable, but not usually so literally.

Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began. The
response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are
fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them
foolish. After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it
can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they’d try to soothe
it back to sleep.) “Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can’t
arrest an idea!” said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in
reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.

Last Wednesday in San Francisco, 100 activists occupied the Bank of
America, even erecting a symbolic tent inside it in which a dozen
activists immediately took refuge. At the Berkeley campus of the
University of California, setting up tents on any grounds was
forbidden, so the brilliant young occupiers used clusters of helium
balloons to float tents overhead, a smart image of defiance and
sky-high ambition. And the valiant UC Davis students, after several of
them were pepper-sprayed in the face while sitting peacefully on the
ground, evicted the police, chanting, “You can go! You can go!” They
went.

Occupy Oakland has been busted up three times and still it thrives. To
say nothing of the other 1,600 occupations in the growing movement.

Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague
Spring uprising of 1968, once said, “You can crush the flowers, but
you can’t stop the spring.”

The busting of Zuccotti Park and the effervescent, ingenious
demonstrations elsewhere are a reminder that, despite the literal
“occupations” on which this protean movement has been built, it can
soar as high as those Berkeley balloons and take many unexpected
forms. Another OWS sign, “The beginning is near,” caught the mood of
the moment. Flowers seem like the right image for this uprising led by
the young, those who have been most crushed by the new economic order,
and who bloom by rebelling and rebel by blooming.

The Best and the Worst

Now world-famous Zuccotti Park is just a small concrete and brown
marble-paved scrap of land surrounded by tall buildings. Despite the
“Occupy Wall Street” label, it’s actually two blocks north of that
iconic place. It’s rarely noted that the park is within sight of, and
kitty-corner to, Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers
crumbled.

What was born and what died that day a decade ago has everything to do
with what’s going on in and around the park, the country, and the
world now. For this, al-Qaeda is remarkably irrelevant, except as the
outfit that long ago triggered an incident that instantly released
both the best and the worst in our society.

The best was civil society. As I wandered in the Zuccotti Park area
last week, I was struck again by how much what really happened on the
morning of September 11th has been willfully misremembered. It can be
found nowhere in the plaques and monuments. Firemen more than deserve
their commemorations, but mostly they acted in vain, on bad orders
from above, and with fatally flawed communications equipment. The fact
is: the people in the towers and the neighborhood — think of them as
civil society coming together in crisis — largely rescued themselves,
and some of them told the firefighters to head down, not up.

We need memorials to the coworkers who carried their paraplegic
accountant colleague down 69 flights of stairs while in peril
themselves; to Ada Rosario-Dolch, the principal who got all of the
High School for Leadership, a block away, safely evacuated, while
knowing her sister had probably been killed in one of those towers; to
the female executives who walked the blind newspaper seller to safety
in Greenwich Village; to the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93,
who were the only ones to combat terrorism effectively that day; and
to countless, nameless others. We need monuments to ourselves, to
civil society.

Ordinary people shone that morning. They were not terrorized; they
were galvanized into action, and they were heroic. And it didn’t stop
with that morning either. That day, that week they began to talk
about what the events of 9/11 actually meant for them, and they acted
to put their world back together, practically and philosophically.
All of which terrified the Bush administration, which soon launched
not only its “global war on terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan,
but a campaign against civil society. It was aimed at convincing each
of us that we should stay home, go shopping, fear everything except
the government, and spy on each other.

The only monument civil society ever gets is itself, and the
satisfaction of continuing to do the work that matters, the work that
has no bosses and no paychecks, the work of connecting, caring,
understanding, exploring, and transforming. So much about Occupy Wall
Street resonates with what came in that brief moment a decade before
and then was shut down for years.

That little park that became “occupied” territory brought to mind the
way New York’s Union Square became a great public forum in the weeks
after 9/11, where everyone could gather to mourn, connect, discuss,
debate, bear witness, share food, donate or raise money, write on
banners, and simply live in public. (Until the city shut that
beautiful forum down in the name of sanitation — that sacred cow
which by now must be mating with the Wall Street Bull somewhere in the
vicinity of Zuccotti Park.)

It was remarkable how many New Yorkers lived in public in those weeks
after 9/11. Numerous people have since told me nostalgically of how
the normal boundaries came down, how everyone made eye contact, how
almost anyone could talk to almost anyone else. Zuccotti Park and the
other Occupies I’ve visited — Oakland, San Francisco, Tucson, New
Orleans — have been like that, too. You can talk to strangers. In
fact, it’s almost impossible not to, so much do people want to talk,
to tell their stories, to hear yours, to discuss our mutual plight and
what solutions to it might look like.

It’s as though the great New York-centric moment of openness after
9/11, when we were ready to reexamine our basic assumptions and look
each other in the eye, has returned, and this time it’s not confined
to New York City, and we’re not ready to let anyone shut it down with
rubbish about patriotism and peril, safety and sanitation.

It’s as if the best of the spirit of the Obama presidential campaign
of 2008 was back — without the foolish belief that one man could do
it all for civil society. In other words, this is a revolt, among
other things, against the confinement of decision-making to a
thoroughly corrupted and corporate-money-laced electoral sphere and
against the pitfalls of leaders. And it represents the return in a new
form of the best of the post-9/11 moment.

As for the worst after 9/11 — you already know the worst. You’ve
lived it. The worst was two treasury-draining wars that helped cave
in the American dream, a loss of civil liberties, privacy, and
governmental accountability. The worst was the rise of a national
security state to almost unimaginable proportions, a rogue state that
is our own government, and that doesn’t hesitate to violate with
impunity the Geneva Convention, the Bill of Rights, and anything else
it cares to trash in the name of American “safety” and “security.”
The worst was blind fealty to an administration that finished off
making this into a country that serves the 1% at the expense, or even
the survival, of significant parts of the 99%. More recently, it has
returned as another kind of worst: police brutality (speaking of blind
fealty to the 1%).

Civil Society Gets a Divorce

You can think of civil society and the state as a marriage of
convenience. You already know who the wife is, the one who is supposed
to love, cherish, and obey: that’s us. Think of the state as the
domineering husband who expects to have a monopoly on power, on
violence, on planning and policymaking.

Of course, he long ago abandoned his actual wedding vows, which means
he is no longer accountable, no longer a partner, no longer bound by
the usual laws, treaties, conventions. He left home a long time ago to
have a sordid affair with the Fortune 500, but with the firm
conviction that we should continue to remain faithful — or else. The
post-9/11 era was when we began to feel the consequences of all this
and the 2008 economic meltdown brought it home to roost.

Think of Occupy as the signal that the wife, Ms. Civil Society, has
finally acknowledged that those vows no longer bind her either.
Perhaps this is one reason why the Occupy movement seems remarkably
uninterested in electoral politics while being political in every
possible way. It is no longer appealing to that violent, errant
husband. It has turned its back on him — thus the much-decried lack
of “demands” early on, except for the obvious demand the pundits
pretended not to see: the demand for economic justice.

Still, Ms. Civil Society is not asking for any favors: she is setting
out on her own, to make policy on a small scale through the model of
the general assembly and on a larger scale by withdrawing deference
from the institutions of power. (In one symbolic act of divorce, at
least three quarters of a million Americans have moved their money
from big banks to credit unions since Occupy began.) The philandering
husband doesn’t think the once-cowed wife has the right to do any of
this — and he’s ready to strike back. Literally.

The Occupy movement has decided, on the other hand, that it doesn’t
matter what he thinks. It — they — she — we soon might realize as
well that he’s actually the dependent one, the one who rules at civil
society’s will, the one who lives off her labor, her taxes, her
productivity. Mr. Unaccountable isn’t anywhere near as independent as
he imagines. The corporations give him his little treats and big
campaign donations, but they, too, depend on consumers, workers, and
ultimately citizens who may yet succeed in reining them in.

In the meantime, a domestic-violence-prone government is squandering a
fortune on a little-mentioned extravagance in financially strapped
American cities: police brutality, wrongful arrest, and lawsuits over
civil-rights violations. New York City — recall those pepper-sprayed
captive young women, that legal observer with a police scooter parked
on top of him, and all the rest — you’re going to have a giant bill
due in court, just as you did after the 2004 Republican convention
fiasco: New York has spent almost a billion dollars paying for the
collateral damage already done by its police force over the past dozen
years.

The desperately impoverished city of Oakland paid out more than $2
million in recompense for the behavior of the Oakland Police at a
nonviolent blockade at the Oakland Docks after the invasion of Iraq
broke out in 2003, but seems to have learned nothing from it. Surely
payouts in similar or larger quantities are due to be handed out
again, money that could have gone to schools, community clinics,
parks, libraries, to civilization instead of brutalization.

Out of the Ruins

Maybe the teardown of Zuccotti Park last Wednesday should be seen as a
faint echo of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Structures,
admittedly far more flimsy, were destroyed, violently, by surprise
attack, and yet resolve was only strengthened — and what was lost?

The encampment had become crowded and a little chaotic. There was the
admirable bustle of a village — bicycle-powered generators on which
someone was often peddling; information, media, and medic sites whose
staff worked devotedly; a kitchen dispensing meals to whoever came;
and of course, the wonderful library dumpstered by the agents of the
law. There were also a lot of people who had been drawn in by the free
food and community, including homeless people and some disruptive
characters, all increasingly surrounded by vendors of t-shirts,
buttons, and other knick-knacks trying to make a quick buck.

One of the complicating factors in the Occupy movement is that so many
of the thrown-away people of our society — the homeless, the
marginal, the mentally ill, the addicted — have come to Occupy
encampments for safe sleeping space, food, and medical care. And
these economic refugees were generously taken in by the new civil
society, having been thrown out by the old uncivil one.

Complicating everything further was the fact that the politicians and
the mainstream media were more than happy to blame the occupiers for
taking in what society as a whole created, and for the complications
that then ensued. (No mayor, no paper now complains about the
unsanitariness of throwing the homeless and others back onto the
streets of our cities as winter approaches.)

Civil society contains all kinds of people, and all kinds have shown
up at the Occupy encampments. The inclusiveness of such places is one
of the great achievements of this movement. (Occupy Memphis, for
instance, has even reached out to Tea Party members.) Veterans,
students, their grandparents, hitherto apolitical people, the employed
and unemployed, the housed and the homeless, and people of all ages
and colors have been drawn in along with the unions. And yes, there
are also a lot of young white activists, who can be thanked for taking
on the hard work and heat. We can only hope that this broad coalition
will hang together a while longer.

It Gets Better

And of course just as civil society is all of us, so some of us have
crossed over to become that force known as the state, and even there,
the response has been more varied than might be imagined. New York
City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez got scraped up and arrested by the
NYPD when he tried to walk past a barricade two blocks from Wall
Street while the camp was being cleared. And retired New York Supreme
Court judge Karen Smith got shoved around a little and threatened with
arrest while acting as a legal observer.

A councilwoman in Tucson, Regina Romero, has become a dedicated
advocate for the Occupy encampment there, and when the San Francisco
police massed on the night of November 3rd, five supervisors, the
public defender, and a state senator all came to stand with us.

I got home at 2 a.m. that night and wrote, “Their vows to us felt like
true representative democracy for the first time ever, brought to us
by the power of direct democracy: the Occupy Movement. I thought of
the Oath of the Horatii, David’s great painting in the spirit of the
French Revolution. The spirit in the plaza was gallant, joyous, and
ready for anything. A little exalted and full of tenderness for each
other. Helicopters hovered overhead, and people sent back reports of
buses and massed police in other parts of town. But they never
arrived.”

Former Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis actually came to Wall
Street to get arrested last week. “They complained about the park
being dirty,” he said. “Here they are worrying about dirty parks when
people are starving to death, where people are freezing, where people
are sleeping in subways, and they’re concerned about a dirty park.
That’s obnoxious, it’s arrogant, it’s ignorant, it’s disgusting.”

And the Army, or some of its most honorable veterans, are with the
occupiers, too. In the Bay Area, members of Iraq Veterans Against the
War have been regular participants, and Occupy Wall Street has had its
larger-than-life ex-marine, Shamar Thomas, clad in worn fatigues and
medals. He famously told off the NYPD early on: “This is not a war
zone. These are unarmed people. It doesn’t make you tough to hurt
these people. It doesn’t. Stop hurting these people!”

To my delight, at Occupy Wall Street I ran into him, almost literally,
still wearing his fatigues and medals and carrying a sign that said,
“There’s no honor in police brutality” on one side and “NO WAR” on the
other. Which war — the ones in the Greater Middle East or on the
streets of the U.S.A. — hardly seemed to matter: they’re one war now,
the war of the 1% against the rest of us. I told him that his tirade
was the first time I ever felt like the U.S. military had actually
defended me.

Right now everyone is trying to figure out what happens next and quite
a few self-appointed outside advisors are telling the Occupy movement
exactly what to do (without all the bother of attending general
assemblies and engaging in the process of working out ideas together).
So far, the Occupy instigators and Occupy insiders have been doing a
brilliant job of improvising a way that civil society can move forward
into the unimaginable.

As for me, the grounds of my hope have always been that history is
wilder than our imagination of it and that the unexpected shows up far
more regularly than we ever dream. A year ago, no one imagined an Arab
Spring, and no one imagined this American Fall — even the people who
began planning for it this summer. We don’t know what’s coming next,
and that’s the good news. My advice is just of the most general sort:
Dream big. Occupy your hopes. Talk to strangers. Live in public. Don’t
stop now.

I’m sure of one thing: there are a lot more flowers coming.

The first sign regular TomDispatch contributor Rebecca Solnit carried
at an OWS protest said “99% hope. 1% fury.” The author of A Paradise
Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, she is working, mostly from
San Francisco, on her 14th book. And marching, occupying, and
wondering.

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