This afternoon was held the first-ever meeting of “Occupy Decorah,” organized through the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center. We gathered with signs reading everything from POWER TO THE PEACEFUL to IN GOD WE TRUSTED, IN WALL STREET WE BUSTED to REINSTATE GLASS-STEAGALL to I DON’T WANT TO BUY THE KOCHS A WORLD to WE ARE THE ONES WE ARE WAITING FOR. We read the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.” And Liz led us in song. Soon I found myself stepping forward before a group of about sixty sign-carrying strangers and friends to make an impromptu speech on the courthouse steps, which were scattered with golden maple leaves that crunched under our feet.
I thought about a lot of things before coming out here today, I said, and at this moment, I’m thinking how I was never raised to do something like this, in public. I’m a “good Southern girl.” But I stand here as a college professor and writer whose work shows me how important it is to make small changes and individual choices, which all begin with changing your own consciousness, becoming aware, and making decisions that give you back control of your own life and mind. For instance, you have to resist the images of yourself that you get sold in the media. Fox News calls Occupy demonstrators just like us “dirty hippies.” And so much about the depiction of women in TV and movies is just plain appalling. The task confronting any person in any time or any place, anywhere, is to become conscious of our own power to shape our own attitudes and decisions, and make conscious choices. And once we change what’s in here – our own minds – we can change what’s out there – the world beyond us. We can act from a place of spiritual power and generosity and strength. We can act.
My speech didn’t take long. Once past my slight nervousness, I was surprised how natural it felt. How long-delayed. How good it felt to take a stand, to make myself accountable in front of others, to put myself on the line. In my first-year course, we’ve been reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and looking at images from other graphic novels and news coverage shaped by the Arab Spring and the tumult of the last few years in the Middle East, including the Iranian election disputes of 2009. And I see the same question on my students’ faces as on my own: would I have that kind of courage? Could I stand up?
I support the Occupy movement because at its heart it’s about looking closely, discerning the real motivations and meanings bubbling underneath the surface of our economy and our government and our culture, and putting ourselves and our choices as human beings back in the equation. And – in accordance with any social or religious protest movement – it’s about doing the hard work of examining our own complicity in these systems. When I walked down the street from my house to the courthouse, carrying my own homemade signs – one said CORPORATIONS ≠ PEOPLE, one said CHERISH THE LOCAL (vote with your dollars, support sustainable economies), I noticed with surprise that something in me felt weird walking down the street with overtly political intent. What makes the act of walking with a sign, the act of camping out in a park, feel so “radical” to so many of us? But we citizens have to fight the corrosive notion that stepping into the public sphere with an active political intent is somehow an inappropriate gesture. Retreating to our private worlds, trusting that “they” will “take care of it,” and that “we have no business carrying on like that in public” cedes public power to those who care, first and foremost, about money, and who assume that since they haven’t heard otherwise from us, we’re content to let things go on exactly as they are. It all begins with our own complicity. Our own silence. “Letting them do the work” means ceding control over who will step into that gap. Lobbyists and corporations, people with the money to bypass the legislative channels you and I use, can’t be trusted to have your and my best interests at heart. It is not the nature of corporations to be moral; it is the nature of corporations to make money. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem when a wildly uneven playing field lets the corporation’s “rights” and “nature” overrun my health, my consumer choices, my clean air and water. My rights. This is the old legal principle quoted by Elaine Scarry in her book Thinking in an Emergency: quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus decidetur, or “that which touches all requires everyone’s agreement.”
Last month I taught Charlotte Bronte’s classic Victorian novel Jane Eyre to first-year students amid a spate of anti-Occupy-Wall-Street sentiment flying around the web and Facebook. Juxtapose the two and you see an odd, revealing, pseudo-Victorian faith in the propriety of gendered and separate spheres, especially on the part of those whose power is maintained by this arrangement. If Wall Street’s been working just fine for you, it suits you to scoff at Occcupiers as naïve, “unwashed,” refugees from “a Phish concert,” or otherwise improper, implying something distasteful in them which led them to take to the streets at all. If you have power and money, you can buy your own lobbyist, your own politician, your own revisions to the language in the clean air or anti-fracking or banking-regulation bill. You can circumvent the legislative systems ordinary people access only through the ballot box and the upraised voice. You don’t have to put your own body under the windows of Wall Street skyscrapers or the White House or the Capital Building or the Pentagon to claim, with your physical presence, the attention of those inside. Because you are already inside that building too. You’ve moved from door to door in your own private car – literally and figuratively enclosed in a private space, insulated by a thick green blanket of money.
The Victorians considered the private sphere society’s moral center. Not coincidentally, it was also the place where traditional – particularly male – power was most unchallenged, even though it was heavily associated with conventional, proper femininity. We still live with this. Look at our privatized, balkanized communities, our gated subdivisions and our private schools we build to insulate our families and ourselves from dangers against which police forces and public schools gutted by budget cuts can no longer defend. Look at the logic they breed. “The right kind of people” don’t go outside except in spaces they have checked out for safety and that they know they can control. If this is your paradigm, claiming any public rights brings about a vague incredulity in you, because you are able to buy your own private bubbles of safety and security. Yet, as the great social activist and Nobel laureate Jane Addams wrote, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” And the Constitution does give us the right to get out in the streets and ask, peacefully, for our common good.
The enshrining of the private sphere as the place where the “good” belong – and should stay –leads to the dangerous view that those who go out in public to claim their political rights have removed themselves from the realm of “respectable” people and therefore get what they deserve. Women have experienced this, with regard to rape and harassment, for years; various Occupiers (Oakland protestors and Naomi Wolf being just two recent examples) are encountering it anew, as did marchers and Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement. In public, “honor,” especially the “deserved” kind, is slippery for women, and for political protestors, who, in the eyes of the powerful, frequently occupy the same informal category of “other,” and “lesser,” as women do. During the Civil War, Yankee general Benjamin Butler, occupying New Orleans, decreed that any woman spitting on, glaring at, drawing her skirts aside from, or otherwise hurting the feelings of his soldiers would be treated as “a lady of the streets, plying her trade” — deliberately equating women’s public political action with other bad things “public” women do. Southern gentlemen were outraged, seeing – correctly – not only direct insult to “their womenfolk” but an occupying army striking at their own rights of free speech through the persons of their wives and daughters. (This may be one reason, as Duncan Murrell has pointed out, why we might reconsider “occupy” as a verb for the movement.) But as studies by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, among others, have shown, “respect for women” can be little more than a code for self-respect among the men of patriarchal societies, who view women as proprietary extensions of themselves. It doesn’t take much to see what that kind of “respect” is really about. Violate the unwritten, unspoken laws against speaking up, taking to the streets, drawing attention to yourself, and watch what happens. Somewhere on the Internet, some male troll’s surely remarking that this young OWS protestor, not just restrained but felt up by cops, is only getting what she deserves.
(I got this image from Steve Almond’s great essay here.)
Walking away after the Occupy Decorah meeting and march broke up, I dropped by the library and was stopped by a burly man on a bench outside, wanting to know what my signs said. I told him what they said and why I thought it was important, and we had a short but good conversation (“I didn’t know this was going on,” he said, “or, really, what the Occupy Wall Street stuff was all about… I had heard of it, but…”) Eventually he pointed to the pile of books next to him — one by Sean Hannity, one by Bill O’Reilly, and one by Glenn Beck — and asked if I “knew these guys.” Yep, I said. Don’t agree with them, though. I smiled, and he smiled back. “Well,” he said, “it does sound like you and I can agree on one thing: there’s too much apathy out there in America. Too many people who just don’t care.”
Yep, I said, we can agree on that, all right.