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Occupy Wall Street is Transforming its Participants, Our Country, and Democracy

A participant in the Liberty Plaza occupation on the way the movement is changing and the people it's touching, from Eliot Spitzer to Baruch college freshmen.

Monday night at a bar in Brooklyn my friend Alex and I looked through pictures on his phone of the “early days” of Occupy Wall Street. He had pictures of the General Assembly from Day 5 and we laughed together about how empty it looked, how ramshackle and tenuous almost, how we could still see the pavement and there was still space between the people. We had just biked back from Occupy Wall Street and we were commenting, again, on how different the space seems every time we are down there. This time I had been surprised to see tents everywhere, something I hadn't seen before and honestly between the tents, the problems with the drumming in the past week and the debate about moving to a spokes-council structure it felt like the movement was in a moment in which it was trying to deal with its own internal dynamics. Growing pains almost.

It makes sense for a movement like Occupy Wall Street to be having growing pains right now. It is still a surprise to most people, those inside the movement and those observing, whether in solidarity or not, that it is still there and that it is growing. It is still a surprise that in places like Occupy Oakland, where their tents were torn down in the middle of the night and they were tear gassed the next evening, they came back the next day in even stronger numbers and called for a general strike. It has become clear in the past month that the political discourse has shifted and it has become clear in the past month that this thing isn't going away. But some mornings I still wake up surprised about it all.

It actually hadn't become clear to me how much the discourse had shifted until I taught urban poverty and inequality this past week to my Anthropology 101 students at Baruch College. I have taught urban poverty and inequality every year for the past 3 years and every year have similar debates in my class: when I start the section off by asking them why people are poor the first response I usually get from students is that, simply put, people are lazy and they don't want to work. I see my job then to be to explain the structural causes of poverty and that simply saying, “People are lazy and don't want to work” is actually a really problematic way of thinking. Explaining all of this has been so much work in my classes that usually I dread the week on poverty and inequality because it is a week where I am tired.

But last week when I asked my students this question the first response I got in my classes was that “People can't find jobs” and the next one was, “There is a huge wealth gap” and the the third was that, “We have an economic system that needs poor people”. I was shocked. I have never gotten responses like this before. And then I found myself explaining to my students that it was because of all these reasons that I am anti-capitalist. I felt like I was coming out to them, exposing myself in a way that I haven't before. And they listened, they were interested, they thought I was being crazy and idealistic but they cared and it felt really good to have these debates with them. I left teaching that evening feeling energized by our discussions. 

This made me realize that since getting involved in Occupy Wall Street I have felt myself change. Speaking up to block the Declaration of Occupy Wall Street so that its language was inclusive and didn’t erase historical and current oppressions and inequalities (which you can read about here) was a moment in which I realized, in a way that I haven't before, that I can do this. That feeling was about that particular moment but also something larger, something that has grown to encompass thinking about ways in which to create a world outside of capitalism. I keep thinking: we can do this.   And I'm not scared to say this stuff anymore, I'm not scared to articulate my hopes and dreams and wishes for the world. I'm not scared to sit down with Eliot Spitzer and debate capitalism, as did I last week for a New York Magazine piece a friend was putting together. Even if he is  defensive and won't let me finish my sentences and tries to tell me that my thinking isn't “rigorous,” even  then I'm still not scared of him.