So I have my ups and my downs with my Occupy life. Today was one of those days where I love this movement. In a day of rolling events in East River State Park in Brooklyn, a tight plan for S17 emerged, Strike Debt consensed on its actions for the weekend and then we held the Life After Debt action.
East River State Park is a patch of grass with a few benches that runs down to the East River, offering a spectacular view of Manhattan. I got there via brunchtime Willamsburg, a picture-perfect cliché of hipster Brooklyn, all oversize glasses, plaid shorts and undersized tops: and that was just the men. There was a resolutely apolitical vibe. In the park, sunbathing, picnics and in the corner, a group of intensely discussing people.
After three hours, the direct action people had set aside some personal disagreements and finally devised a workable and compelling plan for S17. Details will be forthcoming but what struck me across today was the effectiveness of focused collective intelligence. It’s like rehearsing a play. There can be all kinds of mess, sometimes you need for the whole thing to get to the verge of falling apart and then all of a sudden it palpably clicks into shape.
That happened with Strike Debt today. It’s a disparate group with plenty of personality and some divergence as to tactics and goals. When you get the Occupy process right, though–an agreed agenda, timekeeping, tight facilitation, temperature checks and bottom lining–it’s surprising how the group can rise above that in a way that I have (almost) never seen in academia, for instance. I could give you the decisions but that’s not the point. On a micro scale you learn how a horizontal democratic process grounded in trust and política afectiva actually works.
And then we enacted it. The first Strike Debt action called people together to refuse their debt by describing their debt situation and then symbolically burning their debt. We gathered in a circle facing the river with some new Strike Debt banners. It happened to be a gorgeous day, clear and sunny–there’s going to be some great pictures of the event but I was too busy to take any, sorry.
As people stepped up to speak it seemed to grow quiet even in this very public place. We heard people talk about suddenly diagnosed medical conditions that are not covered by insurance, but might be life-threatening, plunging a life into chaos–and debt. How a piece of bad advice from a union about unemployment benefit led to a contingent faculty member being sued. And many times about the craziness of student debt. To speak in this assembly was at first upsetting but then affirming. Debt is no abstraction. It destroys lives. We’re trying to take them back.
We walked down to the river in procession, took the ashes of the debt papers people had burned and cast them into the water. It wasn’t sad, it was calming and beautiful.
Speaking only for myself, I don’t expect any transformation in the macro-situation in regards to debt any time soon. Finding these alternative ways to live as if there was a life after debt makes that otherwise devastating prospect bearable. And someone had made a cake.