Watching Occupy Wall Street put existential principles into action

800px Day 14 Occupy Wall%20Street%20September%2030%202011%20Shankbone 0 - Watching Occupy Wall Street put existential principles into action
Photo by David Shankbone (Creative Commons License)

I have just met Dasein.

No, not just the ordinary run-of-the-mill average Being-in-the-World Dasein we’ve come to know and hyphenate simply because we are beings who necessarily must relate to our World.

No, this is real, honest-to-whatever-higher-power-you-may-or-may-not-believe-in Dasein. The kind of Dasein for whom its Being would be completely meaningless without its World, the World would be meaningless without Being.

And just where did I find this dreamy Dasein?

On the streets of New York City, of course! At Occupy Wall Street.

For all the criticism and epithets that have been hurled at the protesters at Occupy Wall Streets and all the satellite Occupy movements at cities around the world that have arisen in its wake – that the protesters are hippies or lack a coherent message or are inconsiderate neighbors or are just plain old rabble rousers – no one seems to talk about the less photogenic, less “newsworthy” story about how they actually “are” with each other.

Because as much as Occupy Wall Street is a movement for social and economic justice, it is also a movement about how we relate to each other, and together relate to the world around us.  This existential impact may in fact be a key precursor to making the world more just – and it can be seen in the concrete ways these strangers organize and act with one another.

One Saturday night, the protesters moved north taking their message first to Times Square, where they met strong police opposition, and then back downtown to Washington Square Park, where they were allowed to assembly peaceably – but only until midnight when the park closed. Thousands gathered in the center of the park, communicating by way of their trademark “human microphone.” This is when a person in the center of the group speaks and people in the successive outer rings who can hear it shout it out to those in the rings further away to enable them to hear everything as well. What could become just a cacophony of noise is instead this beautiful echo rippling through the concentric circles, making many voices appear as one – the voice of the 99 percent.

This particular gathering in Washington Square began with “mike checks” to check that this human microphone was in fine working order, and after this was assured, the crowd began to chant the mantra, focusing everyone’s energy and purpose:

“Show me what democracy looks like.”

“This is what democracy looks like!”

But before any discussion could take place, the discussion “leaders” – not to be confused with movement leaders, for there are none – gave full instructions to everyone in case of arrest. They gave everyone the phone number for Legal Aid, made sure everyone had contingency plans for this scenario, and described in detail what the experience of being arrested was like, and how to handle it should it happen. They also asked each person to consider whether they themselves thought they were “arrestable.” Since the topic of this “general assembly” was whether to occupy the park after closing, the discussion of such logistic was an apt prelude to the primary topic.

Knowing that such a discussion was impossible to have amongst thousands, those in the center asked everyone to break up into small groups to discuss their thoughts for 10 to 15 minutes and then all would reconvene and discuss the results as a whole. Without a word of complaint, thousands of people broke up into smaller discussion groups, gathering together with both friends and strangers. In our group, one person naturally emerged as a facilitator, taking names for “stacks,” which had become Occupy Wall Street code for the order of names in which people took turns speaking in group discussions. We had college students, baby boomers, and everyone in between, all speaking coherently, logically, and thoughtfully about how occupying the park after closing would help or hurt the overall cause(s), while everyone else listened respectfully. Members of the group expressed agreement of disagreement or even ambivalence through silent hand and finger signals, another set of respectful gestures that have become part of the Occupy Wall Street language. When the “mike check” began, sounding the signal to reconvene as a group, our facilitator spoke for us. Despite different opinions, we had reached a consensus with no bad feelings, no yelling, no arguments, and no personal attacks. Strangers became connected to one another, first through our small group and then through the larger Washington Square group, and then as part of the whole 99 percent.

Watching the ease and flow with which this process of discussion and dialogue and respectful, effective communication happened, one wonders why this does not happen more often – in politics, in finance, even in families. But it is so clear that when everyone is completely invested in a common outcome – in this case, the success of a movement intended to promote positive change for 99 percent of the population, i.e., those not in control of the wealth of this nation – that one does not have to work to hyphenate one’s Being with one’s World. It is natural and organic and effortless. Pure Dasein, or at least 99 percent pure.

— Sarah Kass

Read more posts by Sarah Kass

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