Faith in the 99 percent: What drives Occupy Wall Street?

By Starhawk  OCT 20, 2011

We are the 99 percent!” The chant thunders through the streets, from Wall Street in New York City, where the Occupy movement began, to K Street in Washington, where high-paid lobbyists influence government, to streets in cities and small towns all across the nation. In hundreds of Occupations, ordinary people have been moved to fill parks and streets and squares with signs, tents, impromptu soup kitchens, intense conversations and lengthy meetings.

What’s going on? Pundits splutter about the movement’s lack of ‘demands’ and coherent messaging, but sound bites and 10-point programs arise from central committees and top-down hierarchies. The Occupy movement demonstrates a very different model of organizing: emergent, decentralized, without a command and control structure.


While I have not had the chance to go to Wall Street, I’ve been to four different Occupy sites in the last two weeks, two in Washington DC, one in San Francisco where I live, and one across the Bay in Oakland. There are at least five others within a two-hour drive from my home, and more springing up each day. Oakland was inspiring-like a small village with a food tent, a medical tent, a library, a free school, and a built-in ampitheater in front of City Hall. Some others have looked more like homeless encampments. But all share a common heart, a revulsion against an economy and a politics that increasingly say, “You don’t count, except as something to exploit. Your voice is drowned out by money, your labor is expendable, your needs must be sacrificed to the gods of profit.”

At its essence, the message of the Occupations is simply this:

“Here in the face of power we will sit and create a new society, in which you do count. Your voice carries weight, your contributions have value, whoever you may be. We care for one another, and we say that love and care are the true foundations for the society we want to live in. We’ll stand with the poor and sleep with the homeless if that’s what it takes to get justice. We’ll build a new world.”

The Occupy movement is not overtly religious, like the Tea Party. The 99 percent includes people of all religious faiths, and people who have none. But I believe its core message and ethic is profoundly spiritual, even prophetic.

Religion at its core calls us to charity, community, and witness. In part, our disgust with the system as it is stems from its violation of some of our most basic values. We are taught that a good person does good to others and offers service to the community. Yet we see the system rewarding the rapacious while dismissing the claims of those who devote their lives to nursing the sick, teaching the young, growing our food, building our homes, fighting our fires, or producing those things we truly need.

People come to the Occupations because they cannot rest silent in the face of so much that is just plain wrong. The Occupations give a framework for the protests that call the greedy and powerful to account. And they challeng us to create an alternative.

Disgusted with the corruption and ineffectiveness of government, we go back to the most basic roots of democracy-people sitting together in the public square, talking and making decisions. Of course, democracy is messy and frustrating. When people express their opinions, they don’t all agree. The movement confronts the basic questions of how people can act together. How does direct democracy scale up? We want to hear everyone’s voice, but when we gather in large numbers, how long will that take, and how do we do it without a sound system? Maybe we use the “people’s mike”-where the nearby crowd repeats the words of each speaker, and waves of echoers carry the message back. That creates a great sense of unity, but it takes even longer!

What do we do when needs clash-do we favor the smokers or the non-smokers, the drummers or the sleepers? How do we make alliance with people so broken by life that they are not very capable of listening to others or taking into account other peoples’ needs? Within the broad range of the 99 percent, there are people with whom I agree and others whose beliefs and opinions I find frankly appalling. How do we come together on common ground?

None of these are easy problems to solve. I’ve sat through interminable and frustrating meetings. But I’ve also had moments of profound inspiration and grace. I hug the smiling man at Occupy Oakland who tells me, “There’s a whole lot of healing going on here.” I tear up as a young woman with a beautiful voice sings, “We shall not be moved” to honor an earlier struggle for Civil Rights. I beam at the calm, shy drifter who steps up to facilitate a big meeting and lets his innate intelligence shine.

What a magnificent experiment! How amazing, how exciting that in this world of increasing cynicism and alienation, thousand of people are moved to call to account the greedy and powerful and reinvent democracy in the public square!

The Occupy movement renews my faith in the human spirit, in our creativity, our craving for justice, our determination to root our world in love. So come on down! You are important. Your voice counts. You have a unique contribution to make. We are all the 99 percent.

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STARHAWK  | OCT 20, 2011 3:18 PM