Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Understanding the "Occupy" Movements

Let me first clarify that my comments on this movement are in no way a statement for or against the Occupy demonstrations. They are merely my attempt to add clarity to the actions and intentions of this wave of protests, as misinformation has been rampant.

As I approached the Occupy Chicago congregation on Friday night, the scene was picturesque. There were close to two hundred individuals huddled at the base of a bronze statue that depicted a Native American war chief astride a rearing horse. One arm is eternally stretched back as he prepares to loose an arrow from his bow. Off to the side of the gathering the Chicago skyline lit the night air with a poignant glow. The lights and opulence, in some ways, represented what these people came out to speak against, as far as I understood.

A gray haired man was standing in the center of the makeshift rotunda, wearing a business suit under a long tan raincoat. He spoke in clipped half-sentences, pausing to allow the crowd to repeat his phrases. This "peoples mic" (as it was later labeled) created a sense of rallying force, with an implied agreement with the speaker rippling through the crowd. The man accentuated his phrases with emphatic lurches and pantomimed gestures. He was a member of the National Lawyers’ Guild, the organization that was bringing legal counsel to the arrested citizens from the first round of incarcerations.

The man was mostly concerned with conveying logistic information about where perpetrators should meet in order to receive legal advice. But he did take time to share a few interesting thoughts. He leaned toward the crowd and very carefully chose his words,

"IF you tell me..." the crowd repeated the words.

"...that you're going to do something..." the people reiterated.

"...that will hurt someone or damage something..."

"...then I am legally bound..." report it." the crowd said the last phrase with uncertain sobriety. The lawyer went on,

"But IF you tell me about something you've ALREADY done..." the crowd responded with growing vigor.

"...I am legally bound to confidentiality." He said the last part with a knowing smile. I expected the crowd to roar with approval of the speakers implication. But instead of an audible reaction, they responded by raising there hands in the air. Some wiggled their fingers, while others twisted their hands back and forth, the American Sign Language symbol for applause. It was a unique thing to see such an enthusiastic response from a group of people, all while allowing the speaker to continue with his message.

The man went on, all the while pausing for the crowd to respond. At one point, a short, slovenly dressed man with a hooded sweatshirt stumbled up beside the speaker and began shouting something. I couldn't make out his words, and before I could, the crowd swooped in to reclaim order.

"Format! There's a process!" The crowd became a self-policing body, keeping the conglomeration of irked citizens to the prescribed agenda.

After the legal council portion of the program, the leaders of the rally moved onto some other business. I circled back to the outskirts of the crowd, trailing the lawyer. I caught his attention and had an opportunity to speak with him one-on-one.

"The National Lawyers’ Guild has been representing protesters for a long time. We were there for desegregation. We were there when they marched on Washington. We were there when the soldiers came back from Vietnam."

He began rolling a cigarette, wetting the paper with his lips as he continued.

"We've represented bombers and murderers. The thing is, once we've signed on as legal counsel, it doesn't matter what you've done. We're like doctors, or priests, you know?"

His eyes darted as his brow danced with excitement. It was clear that it was these juicy cases that made him excited to be a lawyer. I pressed him for more.

"So how do you deal with that conflict? If you know that someone has committed a crime, potentially killed someone, how does that affect you mentally?" He didn't answer that question directly.

"So I'm Irish, right? You know we've been trying to kill each other for decades. Now recently, we've had some peace, but a few years ago...Who's wrong or right in that situation? How do you answer that?" He took a long drag on his cigarette.

I wanted to continue our conversation, but a woman carrying a sign stepped in between us and began plying the lawyer with some magazine article that he had to read. I took this as my cue to exit, and returned to the rally.

That last statement bore greater relevance to the protest at hand than I think either of us realized. Who is right or wrong in these "Occupy" protests that are springing up across the globe? When is it appropriate for the police to use tear gas and riot gear to subdue protesters, as they did in Oakland, California this week? When is it appropriate for protesters to move beyond civil disobedience and delve into the world of violence and destruction, as was done in Toronto last summer during the G8 summit?

These are difficult questions to answer, just as understanding the "Occupy" movements is difficult. Each one has different levels of nuanced complaints for their communities, local, state, and national. Each one has different levels of organization, from parliamentary governance to chaotic confederation.

If you want more information about what Occupy Chicago stands for, I encourage you to visit Even better, head down to Grant park, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway. According to their website, there is some type of event being held there most nights of the week.

Before you demonize an individual or group for their beliefs, seek to understand them. Stand face-to-face with them, and learn why they believe the things they do. Only then can we start finding a solution to the strife we face in the world.

These photos were taken the day after I attended the Occupy Chicago event. I had hoped to find the movement, but evidently they'd been removed or marched on to another part of the city by the time I made it back to the Native American monument. All that was left were a few signs, and some homeless people, trying to get some rest.

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