by Scott Thompson
Ifirst heard about Occupy Wall Street on October 1, the day of the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. When MSNBC picked up the story, I turned to my wife, Cicely, and said, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. I wish we were in New York right now.”
“Don’t worry,” said my father-in-law, “It’ll come here soon enough.
He was right about that. When I Googled the phrase “Occupy Wall Street Minnesota” that same night, I found out the first day of the Minnesota Occupation was scheduled for October 7, less than a week away. The place was called “People’s Plaza” at 300 South 6th Street in Minneapolis, a public space located directly in front of the Hennepin County Government Center.
In the three years before Occupy started, we had seen our household income drop from about $45,000 a year to about $9,600, on which we would soon be supporting four people. Watching this country go from a place where I had never been unemployed for more than a few months in my entire life into a place where I didn’t know if I would ever have a real job again had filled me with a deep and nearly-terrified sense of despair. Watching the documentary Inside Job and understanding why it had happened had turned that despair into a smoldering, desperate anger. Occupy Wall Street gave that anger a purpose, but Occupy Minnesota surprised me. It didn’t feel angry.
The mood on that first day was expansive and joyful, the most optimistic and liberating feeling I’d experienced in a long time. There were so many people there, and so many different kinds of people, from union activists to little old ladies to a shirtless guy with a Mohawk. Seeing the sheer number of people there who felt the same way I did about was wrong with this country and what we needed to do to fix it, I felt an entire lifetime of assumptions and prejudices realigning in just a few hours.
Cicely went into the hospital to give birth to our second daughter on October 21, so she was out of action for a little while. I started taking the city bus downtown to go to the General Assembly (GA) in Minneapolis, and even though I was incredibly inspired by the ideal of direct democracy and decision-making by consensus, the actual process of the GA seemed grueling and often hostile. Occupy Minnesota was involved in a battle of wills with Hennepin County over the issue of tents, which (in a state with winters as cold as Minnesota’s) was going to be the single biggest factor in whether we could make it through the winter on the Plaza or not. There was a Winter Strategy committee to find a way around the problem, but everyone seemed to have a different plan and there was a lot of tension and verbal aggression between people with different viewpoints. Because I wasn’t able to be down at the Plaza every day, I started to feel like an outsider, and when I spoke with people who were at the Plaza more frequently, they seemed more wary than friendly.
One night just after the GA, two men almost got into a fistfight right in front of me. One of the two was much larger and more aggressive than the other, and there could be no doubt what would happen if the fight kicked off. Several of us spontaneously got in between the two men, raising our hands to indicate that we were prepared to get hit if we had to in order to keep the larger man from assaulting the smaller one. The big guy backed off and went for a walk to calm down, and my optimism about what we were trying to do was reconfirmed.
We had succeeded in stopping an assault through the power of nonviolent solidarity alone, and we hadn’t harmed the potential attacker. I grew up surrounded by violence and poverty, so I tend to think of violence not as an aberration but a normal everyday occurrence. What I had just seen was something I would have said could not be done. I was later to see the exact same thing happen again at a march, when one protester tried to physically seize control of the bullhorn from another. The same thing happened the second time—by simply stepping in front of the person and raising our hands, we were able to stop the attack from happening.
Occupy is made up of people with every possible viewpoint on spirituality, from militant atheism to “liberation theology” Catholicism to neopaganism and New Age beliefs. Despite the lack of a single viewpoint on spirituality within the Occupy movement, there is a type of spirituality intrinsic to what we do. To get in the way of a planned injustice by a bank or potential violence from a police officer or even another Occupier and say, in effect, “I will not let you harm others but I am not willing to harm you either,” is a spiritual act of great power.
For some Occupiers, this is expressed directly as a sense of spiritual mission, and for others it is not.
In Zuccotti Park, Occupiers established a makeshift shrine around a tree they referred to as the “Tree of Life,” at which you could find people praying to Allah, doing Zen meditation, counting out rosary beads or performing Yoga. The bewildering mix of spiritual symbols would probably strike a lot of people as a senseless chaos, but if you think about it this approach to spirituality matches the broader ideals of the Occupy movement perfectly.
Vertical power structures have worked about as well in the history of religion as they have in our secular history, which is not at all. From popes preaching crusades to cult leaders ordering their followers to commit mass suicide, spiritual leaders have again and again given the lie to the idea that we need leaders at all. Spirituality of that type is all too often just a prop to the existing power structure. Spirituality of the Occupy type is something else entirely.
No dogmas, no doctrines, no gurus—just a place to pray together, even if we aren’t saying the same prayers or even praying to the same gods. Open-source spirituality.
Last year on Dia De Los Muertos, Occupiers in Minneapolis put up an altar in honor of the dead, and people were encouraged to leave little messages for those they had lost. I wrote a short note to my father, who passed away in 2006, and then I went up to the GA.
The GA was often a very difficult space to be in, but there was also something beautiful about it and about the whole Occupy concept. It was never just about money and politics. It wasn’t even mostly about money and politics. It was about love. I say that as a man to whom such emotions do not come easily, a man who was raised to value hard attitudes and hard people, not feel-good sentiments. I would never have guessed that this would happen, but Occupy moved me deeply. It touched my spirit. Let’s not try to forget about that side of things as we move forward.