Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Personal Possibilities

Today is my 22nd birthday. After being asked by many of my supportive friends and family how I would like to spend this day, I have chosen to instead focus on two upcoming occasions. In a few days I celebrate the first six months of my political writings and activism, and a week from then we will all be celebrating the six-month anniversary of Occupy. As this milestone in my life intersects with this great landmark of the movement, I cannot help but to take this moment to reflect on all that has transpired these last few months.

For years I struggled against the culturally enforced importance that is placed on the birthday celebration. In fact I shunned all holidays; no explanation of traditional celebration ever seemed rational to me. The only reasoning my pessimism permitted was that people celebrated these occasions to ignorantly escape the dreadfulness of their lives. To sing happy birthday, to set the table for thanksgiving dinner, to attend Christmas mass; these things seemed foolish and foreign to me. Of course I would still participate in the ones I had a stake in (what ten year old doesn’t want ice cream cake?). But by doing so I only concentrated my condescension, and hardened the hate I held in my heart.

It was this same cynicism that I silently carried through my adolescence, following the terrorist attacks on September 11th and the ensuing ‘War on Terror’. I know you all have felt some version of this; the crushing feeling that no matter what you may say or do, the world will only become worse and worse. Our cultural obsession with selfish individualism furthered my absolute disdain for speaking out; why should anything I have to say be of importance when there are so many others suffering in the world?

I have had the privilege of growing up alongside the intelligentsia of New York City, a community that values education, creativity and critical thinking. Unfortunately, intellectuals also have an inherent tendency to be somewhat elitist. Thus the ironic tragedy of this community was that it ended up being the prominent perpetuator of pessimism. The sub culture our generation developed became one of apathetic cynicism. Cool became synonymous with not caring or trying, certainly not believing in anything. The value of critical thinking and questioning institutions was turned in on itself with a cannibalistic frenzy. Every young person knew that the government did not serve our interests, the two party system was a farce, and all politicians were corrupt. We all understood that our news organizations lied to us, the global economy was rife with inequity, and the environment was being irrevocably damaged. It became axiomatic that the game was rigged, the house always won, there was no way to stop it. For us, there seemed to be only two options: climb the falling ladder quicker than the next guy, or stay on board the sinking ship and laugh at the fools trying to escape.

I opted for the latter path of self-destruction. I was too angry at my peers for their proud apathy in the face of global crisis to join them. I thought that somehow it was better to jeer at consumer culture than participate in it. But was it? After all, had I not taken the same path of selfishness just in the opposite direction? My rejection was nothing more than a quiet acceptance of all I took issue with. If anything, I aided in making it worse.

I could see in the eyes of my peers the same restrained rage yearning to be released that I felt in myself. How could everyone feel this and still not share it? Although I didn’t understand it then, it is obvious to me now that the burning anger we felt was born out of bitter disappointment. For in order to be disappointed to begin with, you have to have had ideals which failed you. In order to obsess over not caring, you must have once cared.

This is when I began to write. How could I be mad that no one else was voicing what I was thinking when I wasn’t even doing it myself? After months of self-reflection, I published my first political article ‘Shock and Awe’ on the 10th anniversary of September 11th 2001. I ended the article with an appeal for discussion. This was my attempt to appropriate the political ‘holiday’ of 9/11 as the moment to break the silence of our time. The reaction was mild but did not live up to the unrealistic expectation I had built in my mind for months. Although I got a few responses from my immediate friends, I foolishly allowed myself to again be frustrated with disappointment.

Six days later on September 17th was the start of Occupy Wall Street. It seems odd to me now that I did not recognize the clear connection between the birth of this movement and my own personal journey. I had appealed in my article for a new national discourse, one that would “preach critical questions, not absolute answers”. I am not at all claiming that I somehow anticipated the movement; on the contrary it took me completely by surprise.

That first day I went down there on a whim, having never previously participated in any sort of political activism. After hours of messy first attempts at general assemblies, I left carrying the same cynicism as always. I leveled the critique shared by so many others; that it was too disorganized to accomplish anything specific. But over the next few weeks I slowly began to change my mind, and eventually came to recognize the important discourse it was developing. I decided to align myself with the movement by occasionally attending and writing articles of support. It was then that I encountered both cynical critiques but also curiosity from many of my friends. In my peer group I became the go-to ‘occupy’ guy, and I took it upon myself to explain and defend the integrity and significance of the movement to anyone who would listen.

Yet at this point I was only paying lip service to my ideals. I often wrote and talked of the necessity of general assemblies when I myself had only been a passive participant in them. I was still too intimidated to speak my mind, even in the midst of an encouraging environment.

Then came the illegal raid on Liberty Plaza in November. The tipping point was when the NYPD destroyed the People’s Library by burning books. This symbol of blatant fascistic oppression prompted me to go down and join the mass action on N17. I made my first physical sign of protest, which asked “Why is it legal to Occupy Baghdad with guns but illegal to Occupy New York with books?” It was also the first day I was there without anyone else I knew personally, which in a sense forced me to have dialogues with strangers. Still, I was nervous about openly speaking my mind, and at first only passively did so by holding my sign. I would be lying if I didn’t say this was largely prompted by a fear of the extreme display of force by the authorities. The street that lead to the stock exchange was blocked with tank traps and military vehicles and the sidewalks were flanked with battalions of riot police. I witnessed in person for the first time police attacking and arresting unarmed civilians. I was scared and angry at the same time, but the positive energy of those around me kept people generally calm and safe. We stood strong and managed to delay the opening of the trading bell, and a feeling of victory overtook the crowd.

Soon after we marched back and retook Liberty Plaza. A fiery debate ensued, provoked by those with more extreme points of view. These people wanted to go back and rush the stock exchange with force, while most wanted to regroup and continue to follow the plan of nonviolent disruption that had already been set for the day. One of the problems presented by a general assembly is that those with more extreme opinions tend to dominate discussions. Luckily, there were others in the crowd who had equally strong and rational voices that managed to diffuse the tension. It is because of the danger of rabble rousing that it is important for everyone to speak up, in spite of how intimidating it might be.

About that time, the NYPD began to encircle the park, moving the barricades up on all four sides. It had been a tactic to trap everyone inside in order to more easily arrest them. People responded by pulling barricades out of the hands of the police, and that’s when the violence really started. As I watched with silent fear as people were being beaten with batons, I felt a hand on my shoulder throw me to the ground. A primal anger swelled in my gut as lizard brain defense instincts kicked in. Standing up, I noticed that many people around me were experiencing the same thing; consumed totally with the feeling of righteous defensive anger. In this moment it occurred to me that if the crowd suddenly fought back we would lose the moral high ground, and with it the integrity of the whole movement. I looked at the police pouring in to the park and saw the same defensive anger controlling them, and suddenly it all clicked. It is this anger that gets manipulated one way or another in order to keep us in a state of self-destruction. It keeps us fighting when we should be working together.

It was this moment of realization that inspired me to use the Peoples Mic for the first time: “NYPD. We are on your side. We do not want to fight you. The banks don’t give a fuck about you. Join us. Join us.” Albeit crass, what I said hit a nerve in the crowd, and inspired others to calm themselves. My appeal to resist the urge to fight back was contagious. For the first time I heard my words reverberate across the crowd. Others soon chimed in with their own words of peace and de-escalation. Eventually, the police were forced to halt their aggression and leave the park.

That was possibly the single most empowering moment of my entire life. Confronted with the worst feelings I had, I managed to control myself and act on my principles, not my impulses. In the months that have followed since that day, I have slipped back into destructive or hateful habits more than I would like to admit. But that moment has managed to stick with me, and my journey since then has been one of working towards replicating it as often as I can.

I have chosen to share this story not to glorify or romanticize my own actions, and certainly not to claim some sort of authority or self-importance over what’s going on in the world. Instead, I have shared it with the hope that you may find parallels in your own experience, and perhaps you have come to the same conclusions as I. Ideals are not just fantasies, but can be practically applied to behavior and attitude with positive results. If you want a voice of reason to conquer extremity of thought, you must make it your own.

Most importantly, the act of recording and sharing a personal history is in and of itself a necessary aspect of social development. The objective of Occupy is for the people to reassert their right to determine their collective history, which begins when we as individuals claim agency over our own personal histories. Then and only then will the connections between our internal existence and external reality enter a true dialogue. I do not think it is coincidence that Occupy began less than a week after September 11th 2011, only two blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center. I do not think it is coincidence that at the same time for the same reasons I was feeling the same thing. The Occupy movement is in some part a collective expression of the repressed feeling that has been bubbling in all of us for the past ten years. Its beginning six months ago served as the unpredictable spark that has reinvigorated and revitalized the hope of the people. In the most general sense Occupy is a symbol that has the potential to inspire individuals to improve ourselves and the world around us.

So I ask you all to join me on March 17th to celebrate our six-month anniversary. Particularly to those who are the die-hard cynics, I ask you to find the wounded idealist within and give them another chance. You must no longer wonder or wish or pray that the world will become better. We each hold a bit of history in our hands. When we combine them, we are unstoppable. Another world is possible.


  1. Beautiful article. I find often that it is terrifying to be the one person in the conversation who is unafraid to say that I truly care, whatever the issue at hand. Not only does it make me vulnerable amid others' cynicism as they laugh or dismiss issues that matter to me, but it forces me to admit to myself that I am not above it all, not unaffected by politics. That they matter, and matter to me on a very deep level.

    Something that I just want to add to your discussion of apathy is that it is often those who think (perhaps mistakenly) that politics are "about" other people who take the cynical position most readily. And again, that creates a real vulnerability for the person who is saying "I care" or "This is about me, and that is why I care." What has been so effective about Occupy is that more people, I believe, are seeing that the politics that seem to be "about" others ... minority groups, marginalized groups, "others" ... are truly about us all. The 99% slogan is very powerful.

  2. The best birthday gift I can give you is a comment to your article. Happy Birthday. Something fun occurred to me while reading this. I thought about a demonstration where no one spoke. All they did was occupy. This statement is contradictory in and of itself but, I think the problematic part is assertion itself. That's why I thought what a beautiful site it would be to see thousands of people gathered in one place completely silent, asserting nothing, remaining calm, docile. I suppose it would be a kind of assertion of the body, a TRUE ACTION.

    Also, I just want to remind you that you effect people by what you say and that you are effected by what others say. That is all.

    Peace and Love

  3. Shane, awesome article! It was really empowering. I didn't know about your moment using the Peoples Mic, but it's awesome to hear, because when I went down to OWS I thought that aspect was amazing but I was also afraid to say anything. But I agree, there's an energy that transposes when people are gathered, working together towards something better, and you can really feel the sense of solidarity when you are physically there, even if you're just listening. Let me know the next time you head down that way, I'd really like to come with!

  4. Thank you for writing this. Since the general subject of the article concerns perspective and resulting action, I thought I'd share my thoughts on that subject:

    The sort of passive aggression you describe as the way that many today relate to politics is a spot on observation. In addition, it seems that there is a great deal of aggression and juvenile competitiveness between people who ultimately want to see the same thing: solutions. There is a very tempting pleasure that is derived from shooting down others' ideas. But it is counterproductive and hypocritical to the ideals of the Occupy movement to indulge in it. I think that all those who put forth a respectful, welcoming, uncondescending attitude toward others involved directly or through discussion of the movement do a great deal to help the success of Occupy. I think that this corresponds with your call to reengage with the inner idealist. "I know better than you what the 99% needs," is worthless, but genuinely listening and actively engaging, a total reversal of that passive aggression, is, I believe, the form of participation that spread the movement across the country and will continue to fuel it.