Zuccotti Park Requiem

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Woodstock lasted a long weekend amid rain and mud; the Zuccotti Park encampment lasted two months amid rain and snow.

Neither was precisely planned. A for-profit music festival, Woodstock was relocated at the last minute due to pressure by neighbors, and then the gates, through which 50,000 ticketed concert-goers had been expected to walk through, were thrown open- free- to accommodate the nearly 500,000 who came. Same with the OWS movement; originally slated as a small sidewalk gathering alongside the charging Wall Street bull – it then got relocated at the last minute to the 1 acre Zuccotti Park due to pressure by managers at the original site.

Woodstock became the concert heard around the world, spawning hundreds more seeking to recapture its feel - as did Zuccotti Park encampment, with hundreds more springing up around the world. Woodstock was a celebration of free love and sharing, an alternative, more open vision of society. So was the Zuccotti Park encampment.

And then Woodstock ended, as did the Zuccotti Park encampment. Still, the ideas both sites spawned will live on long after their dismantling. So before moving on to the Occupy movement’s future, let us take a last look back. The most important thing this visitor got from Zuccotti Park was a profound sense of idealism and community largely missing in society today (as I discovered several years ago, watching the manager of my California apartment building die of lung cancer).

Day by day he declined, until he was unable to breathe without an oxygen machine, unable to urinate without a catheter. He was terrified and alone, his main “company” were nurses who told him he was doing better – when he could feel a different reality.

So he turned to television. Perhaps through this medium, he would finally understand what his life had been about – and thus make his peace with himself, with the son he had pushed away, and with his death. But he found nothing - nothing but advertisements of how wonderful his life could be if he only bought the latest washer/dryer, or car, or other status symbol. And so, with this as this final soundtrack, he died.

Zuccotti Park was just the opposite. Even had I wished to do so, it would have been difficult to talk to an Occupier about the latest washer/dryer. Rather, the Occupiers were here for a reason – to protest the growing economic inequality hollowing out America’s one time promise, and to restore a sense of community. And so our conversations skipped over the social niceties by which today’s Americans hide from one another, and got to the heart of what it means to be human.

The Occupiers spoke with their eyes, with their hands, with their bodies. They listened, and then spoke from their heart. They were alive and sought to understand, on a deep level, what their lives – what our lives among each other – were really about.

Most impressive was their public speaking system, born of necessity since electronic amplification was banned. So in large assemblies, a speaker spoke one sentence at a time, repeated aloud by his listeners.

Question: how often do we really listen to one another? Isn’t our first instinct to listen only to another’s first words, then rev up our self-righteous counterargument? Do we still talk to each other, or do we talk past each other? Do we listen, or try to shout down those who dare disagree with us?

Nowhere is this more obvious than on cable “talk” shows, each of which teach, by their example, name-calling over real communication. And if cable’s hosts are earning fame and fortune doing this, hey, shouldn’t we do this, too? ...Even when this results in an increasingly divided country, and a Congress which can not even talk to itself amid a dizzying national decline?

What would happen if Congressional representatives had to speak without electronic amplification, to others who listened first, repeating what had been said before replying with their own ideas? Could we then, a la Zuccotti Park, finally talk to – rather than past – one another?

The flip side of this Zuccotti model is the constraint on the speaker, whose every sentence is echoed, paradoxically slowing dialogue while quickly moving to the heart of the matter. Speaking thus, does the speaker not drop the taunting of adversaries? Does the speaker not make sure they have something constructive to say before talking?

I never spoke at a Zuccotti Park assembly because that bar was too high for me. And so, I became more a listener than a shouter – and learned that perhaps the ability to listen is what we need now.

Not only was Zuccotti Park a place to discuss important ideas; not only was Zuccotti a place to learn how to carefully listen and speak; there was something more here. Zuccotti Park was a physical home to a new movement, one where people met, their lives touching as they negotiated how to get along in a crowded space.

As in Woodstock, this sense of community was tangible, renewing the spirit. It was manifested in Caiti Lattimer, 22, a Brooklyn actress dancing by the drum circle. When I asked why she was there, she quoted Martin Luther King by heart. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

What TV ad about the good life could compare to that?

So yes, the encampment’s home has been taken down - as was Woodstock.

We do not mourn leaving the park, rough as that ouster was, any more than we mourn leaving home. Let those of us who witnessed or were part of this incredible encampment instead be thankful for that rare opportunity. Let us imbibe the humanity it reinforced in us. Let us hold on to these values as we reassemble, as we petition, as we march to save our larger world from the superficial, materialistic nothingness which threatens to envelop it. Let us instead bring back America’s spirit of generosity and freedom and exploration, which was once our birthright.

As for that other 1%, Zuccotti Park helped define who they truly are. They are not the rich. I heard no one begrudge those who contributed to this country’s wealth. I heard no one speak against Steve Jobs of Apple, or Bill Gates of Microsoft, or Warren Buffet, one of the great investment savants ever. Each of them – and many, many others – have contributed their unique gifts, bringing the American dream closer for all of us. No one begrudges their well-earned riches.

Those we oppose are the tycoons who swindled the many, through fraudulent, made-to-fail “financial instruments." The one percent who cratered our world economy, then demanded that American taxpayers ransom them from their folly and endless greed.

Why did they do so? Because they could - while also playing pusher to our representatives’ addiction to money. All this heightened by a system of legalized bribery. And then, having destroyed the America we knew, having left our small businesses reeling and our homes foreclosed and our people without jobs, they bail out with “golden parachutes,” sneering at the rest of us – because they could. This 1% and their cohorts – the politicians they have in their pockets and their spokespersons whose braying has polluted our airwaves, our ability to think collectively - are the growing cancer on American society. By any ethical system, they are the ones who should be in jail.

Not one, however, has been incarcerated. The only ones taken to jail so far have been the protestors. And so, the rest of us need to ask – what happened? What happened to the one-time Woodstock generation, and to the generations which followed? Have we all given up? Have we resigned ourselves to the corruption, to the theft, to the greed which has seemingly become inescapable in American society?

Perhaps the answers, which began to brew in Zuccotti Park and now are headed straight out into the rest of the world - will surprise us.

By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist
*Photo Credit: emilydickinsonridesabmx

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