by Peter Shaw
On September 24th of last year my wife and I were in a diner in northwest New Jersey. The television was tuned to the local New York City news, and somewhere between the weather and the cat-stuck-in- the-tree story was a piece about a woman who was part of this interesting Occupy Wall Street scene. She had run afoul of the police, and for reasons that perhaps can only be understood by the cop heart, a white-shirted officer pepper sprayed this woman who clearly posed no threat.
“Jesus H. Christ,” I muttered, “The rank spirit of Giuliani lives on.” Then I said, “This is big. This will be all over the news the next few days. It’s awful, but it is going to make this go national.”
By the time we returned to Portland, the story was all over the place, and the mood was palpably different than it had been before I left town. There was a sense of barely-managed angst that could at any moment burst into chaos, as if someone had poured ten thousand gallons of gas on the streets and a lot of people – many of them really angry at a skewed system of wealth and power whose workings had become unmistakably clear after the economic crash of 2008 – were stocked with matches and just looking for a place to strike some sparks.
It is impossible to isolate one or two things that make something like Occupy become what it did, a protest that became a phenomenon, but let’s give it a whirl anyway. For one, the story spoke to many people who had earlier gone along with the dominant narrative of rugged individualism and playing by the rules. When people who had played by the rules and lost saw other people who had played by the rules and lost, they came to realize that there was something wrong that went beyond the individual: 99% versus 1%.
And these folks saw an opportunity for change: not the type promised by candidate Obama in 2008, but something that would alter the system, perhaps even destroy it and replace it with something based on our better angels. People were looking for more control over their lives, tired of having their determined by a small group of sociopaths whose only love in life was money and power.
One may argue whether Occupy was a success. Like any movement, it had issues that caused fractures, and many people became disgusted with it. But Occupy did change the media narrative of the economy, and it did at the least force politicians to begin discussing these issues.
Occupy got peoples’ stories out there. I spent many days at Portland’s encampment, observing a full, lush, and vibrant palette of humanity and jawing with hundreds of people with stories to tell. These stories, even the most mundane of them, were all powerful because the people behind them were there telling them — often finishing with a warm embrace or a firm handshake that said, “Thank you. You’re welcome. Good luck. See you soon. Always say hello. Friend.”
As ever, people want more say in what goes on in their lives. People want to live freely. People want justice. As Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas had it, people want to do all the things that they can do.
One of PCASC’s many great strengths that has led to its many successes has been its connection of people to people, of storyteller to listener, and of listener to more listeners. In San Marcos Aviles, Chiapas, Mexico, people have stories markedly similar in basic plot to those I heard at Occupy Portland – if far more dire and often far more violent throughout the narrative – and they need listeners. For 20 years these Zapatistas have been fighting for autonomy, for the freedom to create their own stories instead of being actors in someone else’s.
The Zapatistas burst on to the world scene on January 1, 1994, quite purposely the same date NAFTA went into effect. Composed largely of people of indigenous Mayan descent, displaced for 500 years, the Zapatistas had spent the prior 11 years organizing communities in Chiapas, fighting the theft of their lands and resources, and resistingas the wilful destruction of their culture. In 1996, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the Mexican government signed the San Andres Accords, guaranteeing the right of indigenous people to govern themselves and not have their land and resources taken for extraction and tourism.
Like nearly every treaty ever signed with indigenous people, this one was not honored, and in 2001 the Mexican Senate and House of Representatives passed a so-called indigenous rights law that inverted the principles of the San Andres Accords by allowing individual states to decide whether to recognize indigenous autonomy, ”, Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos stated the law would be better titled the “Constitutional Recognition of the Rights and Culture of the Landowners and Racists.”
The indigenous of San Marcos Aviles lived the spirit of the San Andres Accords, organizing and governing themselves, and develop their own education system. The government, however, refused to recognize their autonomy, and in September, 2010, government forces drove these people off their land, destroyed their crops, and pillaged their houses. One month later the people returned, but they have since been subject to harassment, death threats, and the continued destruction of their crops.
One of the many problems with the Occupy movement, at least here in Portland, was a lack of willingness to deal with injustice’s many threads. Too many times I heard people saying they were not getting involved to discuss race. Without discussing race, how can you discuss the mortgage mess from which non-whites continue to suffer disproportionately? How can you discuss the police, who seemingly routinely murder non-whites and for many represent a terrorist group?
When you get people’s stories out there, vital connections can be made. One of PCASC’s great strengths has always been giving voice to the people left out of the dominant narrative, granting others access to their stories. Stories have the power to bind us because they make the world much smaller through connections that make us realize how much we have in common. And those connections push us to act when we see injustice.
The struggle of the indigenous people of San Marcos Aviles is a familiar story of people fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds. It is the age old and oft repeated story of David and Goliath. It is the story, to harken back again to Taylor and Dallas, of people who wish they knew how it would feel to be free.
When I work in my or other people’s gardens, I feel a deep connection between myself and soil, light, and water. When I eat the food I grow, I taste that connection, and I am nourished by it. And when I see an indigenous farmer in San Marcos Aviles lamenting over another crop that has been destroyed by the forces of a government that defines freedom in terms of how they can prevent others from having it, I feel a deeper connection.