WHY I’M STILL HERE: Greetings from a Maverick Occupier

Posted on November 7, 2011 by

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By Orlando Enrique Fiol

Three weeks ago, when I first heard about Occupy Philadelphia, I was thrilled by the prospect of making a difference in my adopted city for the past 11 years. Like many across the country and around the world, I felt frustrated with gross inequalities, persistent inequities and a capitalist system that rewards personal ambition at the cost of caring and community. I was eager to lend my talents to the cause of making a difference, but didn’t know how. So, I started getting involved with Occupy Philadelphia’s Google Groups, working groups and face-to-face direct democratic process. The following constitutes a chronicle of how my journey through this burgeoning movement has helped to clarify my principles and values. I hope that my story invites and welcomes you into this exciting movement.

The Core Issues

By the time a friend took me down to City Hall, Occupy Philadelphia, like its counterparts around the country, had already positioned itself as representing the 99% who are tired of corporations and politicians running our show. The movement is clearly grounded in American historical and constitutional principles as well as the vitality of various global movements including this year’s Arab Spring. Initially spurred by the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street, the movement has broadened its scope. Through a combination of face-to-face discussions, email communications and
surveys, many in the movement have come to stand for: equal opportunities in education and housing, a narrowing of the wealth gap, fair taxation, accessible affordable health care, corporate accountability, political transparency, environmental protection, human rights, free speech and peace between nations. I couldn’t quarrel with any of those
issues, since I often feel like a reactionary among leftists and a radical progressive among conservatives. But it quickly became clear to me that getting on board with Occupy Philadelphia was going to require more ideological compromise than I had ever made when trying to find my place in our admittedly broken two-party system. At pedantically doctrinaire meetings, I was confronted with people who wanted to express solidarity with Oakland and aggressively protest police brutality, rather than cooperate with the Philadelphia police, who have been nothing but nice to us. I met people who called for the end of capitalism, believing it to be the only solution to our raging social ills.

Some Occupiers even insisted that there was no place in this movement for individual authorship or unilateral action of any kind. I dreaded having to sign up for what I thought would be propaganda extravaganzas full of ideological orthodoxies just to see improvements on the core issues upon which this movement was founded. While I stood firm with the movement on the issues, I was skeptical about attending hours of arduous meetings that, even from the beginning, seemed inefficiently bogged down by a rigid democratic process. Since Occupy Philadelphia’s core of interrelated issues seemed so refreshingly nonpartisan, I hoped that my unconventional perspectives would find a tiny place somewhere in the welcome tent. Instead, I often felt barraged by attempts to dictate and pontificate when I would have preferred less biased, truly inclusive discussion and information exchange in which everyone is encouraged to think and act for themselves.

Individualism and the 99 Percent

Being an only child, I should have realized long ago that I’ve I’m intrinsically bad at working in groups. I hate feeling like a mere cog in a wheel. Although I don’t crave celebrity or artificial fame, I’d love some occasional recognition for innovative ideas or positive actions. As an individualist, I may share some ambitions in common with the 1 percent so loathed by many in this movement. I don’t always want my actions to melt into a collective homogeneous mass where no one is ever named or allowed to reach high enough to become the best or brightest at anything. Yet, I also feel part of the
99%, neither born into privilege nor a believer in hereditary ambition at working people’s expense. Ambivalent maverick Occupiers like me, with a strong sense of creativity and compassionate autonomy, want to be valued as co-paticipants in this joint global struggle to improve our world, making it more open to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Inclusion and Diversity

For a movement so committed to inclusion, I was initially disheartened, as a blind Hispanic, to find so many young, white, privileged and “able bodied” leftists, and only a relative smattering of people of color, disabled folks, spiritual people, conservatives or libertarians. I wondered if the movement, despite its inclusive rhetoric, ultimately
had no genuine interest in reaching out to us: working-class, disabled and politically unclassifiable people of color. If you have attended Occupy Philadelphia’s concerted actions and lamented the absence of people who look, talk, act or think like you, look more deeply in unexpected places, where you’ll find courageous men and women who are opting in rather than out. Those of us who soldier on, even when we feel dejected and unrepresented, need you to help change this movement’s racial/ethnic, generational and political landscape. Democracy here may often look and sound predominantly white, privileged and stereotypically progressive, but that doesn’t stop anyone from adding a
uniquely new voice. The most effective way to make our humanity and concerns count, where they historically have not, is to add them to the mix rather than withhold them in angry opposition.

Individuality in Actions

Although the encampment and physical occupation of Dilworth Plaza at City Hall has been Occupy Philadelphia’s cornerstone and constitutes its most visible direct action, there are many other productive ways to strengthen the caring communities we so desperately need. Being visually impaired and in graduate school, camping and going down to City Hall every day are impractical. If ongoing commitments and responsibilities make you hesitate before adding on anything new to your hectic life, you’ll probably find, as I do, that there is always plenty to do. Acting locally and thinking globally, we prepare and serve nutritious meals to all who need nourishment. We hand out tents and help find real houses for the homeless. We listen to and reach out to serve neighborhood groups. We organize sit-ins, teach-ins, protests, marches, strikes and boycotts. We petition government, participate in the electoral process and generate support for constitutional amendments. There’s always room in this movement for people with both great ideas and the determination to follow them up with direct actions. Since no one here thinks or acts identically, we remain open to all individual and collective nonviolent actions that promote peace, equity, democracy and community.

Individualism, Values and Process

Regardless of how Occupy Philadelphia looks or sounds on the outside, we actually do come from different generations, socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, educational and spiritual backgrounds. Although many groups still remain underrepresented, we share the common values of justice, empowerment, inclusiveness and consensus (wherever possible). Our counterintuitive and at times arcanely intricate democratic process consists of small working groups and the larger daily general assemblies in which decisions are ratified either by majority vote or consensus. If you’re like me, that process will soon grate on your nerves. Fortunately, there are ways to step back from it while continuing the good fight. If you get tired of overly abstract or philosophical meetings and working groups, try Outreach or Direct action. If you feel frustrated with the same recycled rhetoric making the rounds from meeting to meeting, like stagnant water in a motorized stone fountain, take a break from all that talk and volunteer somewhere where there’s lots
to do.

Although many members of Occupy Philadelphia believe the direct democratic process to be most effective for transforming frustration and anger into a positive world where everyone matters, it is not the only acceptable process. Many of us even find it to be fundamentally flawed. When we meet in small working groups to educate one other, express frustrations and plan direct actions, important voices and perspectives can realistically yet inadvertently end up marginalized or silenced. Consensus is difficult to reach when different cultural, moral and ethical value systems clash. Messy as those clashes can become, their ensuing discussions ultimately enrich us all, inching us closer to the awareness and respect for one another that best counteracts ignorance and indifference. But if none of that convinces you, rest assured that you don’t have to attend working group meetings or daily general assemblies in order to ally with us; I certainly don’t. Better yet, there are a myriad avenues for this very process to be directly critiqued and challenged. If, like me, you feel that you were never consulted before this process was designed, know that you can always take steps to change it or even ignore it entirely. Our message is much more than our process, and you can help shape both.

Concluding Invitation

Like most Occupiers, I’m eagerly doing my best to help make my city’s communities more just, physicly accessible, environmentally sustainable and even socially enjoyable. If you find yourself in agreement with Occupy Philadelphia’s core issues, but unsure that collective consensus or direct democracy are the best catalyst for meaningful change, consider getting involved anyway; you are not alone. Like me, you may have to find creative ways of being an Occupier while staying true to your principles. You may have to get good at spotting fellow mavericks n a sea of people who seem to say the same things and act predictably. But I’m living proof that it can be done.

Whether you share some or all of our values and goals, this movement works hard to accommodate individual passion, inventiveness and creativity; that’s why I’m still here. Whenever and wherever mavericks like me feel unheard or irrelevant, whether in this very movement or outside in a treacherous world, we need your support, encouragement and participation. Whether you join us or stand at a distance, you can feel included and safe to work toward any or all of our important issues, taking whichever direct actions most resonate with you. I encourage you to find your purpose, choose your issues, get plugged in, get involved and stay connected. Our process and message can be part of you, just as your individual values, vitality and energy need to be part of us in order for a better world to emerge. If you’re reading this, it means that the movement managed to make room for me; it can make room for you too.

Postscript on Slogans

I have mixed feelings about slogans. They often sound trite and shallow, but are irresistibly catchy and memorable. The musician/songwriter in me loves hooks even when the intellectual in me is dying to answer them back. When I hear, “We are the 99 percent and so are you,” I want to ask, “Oh yeah? How do you know?” When I hear, “Show me what democracy looks like,” I want to respond, “Yeah right! It looks like people disagreeing so much that potential friendships fray, feelings get hurt and little gets done.” Nonetheless, I fantasize about hearing the following slogan thundering from
car radios all over the city of brotherly love, perhaps as part of a public service message, intoned by a deep-voiced, authority-exuding announcer and flanked by a funky beat: We are Occupy Philadelphia: Learn, Talk, Teach, Act.

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Posted in: Editorial