Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflections of Zuccotti Park

Earlier this week the Occupy Wall Street protest that originated in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park was disbanded by local authorities. In late October I had occasion to visit New York City and made a point to visit ground zero of arguably the most unified grass roots protest movement seen in this country since the 1970’s “No Nukes” or the “NOW” women’s rights movement in the 1980’s.

As I circled the park I was immediately struck with the sheer diversity of views, opinions, and axes to grind represented among the protesters. While much of the discourse taking place between protesters and passersby was centered around the unequal distribution of wealth, that apparent focus was lost among the competing voices and signage touting everything from water conservation and recycling, to trade imbalance with China and veteran’s rights.

At face value this lack of clarity may have made it easy to dismiss “the cause”. However the voices I heard spoke, sang, recited and shouted in such earnest tones about their respective issues, it was hard to deny the collective frustration that became, in fact, their unified call. Poet Michael O'Brian gives voice to the frustration as well as the paradox of American society in his spoken word poem "I'm A Pac Man":

Free Speech in action: I was also deeply moved by the powerful evidence OWS gave to our country’s long honored right of free speech. Regardless of the point of view— conservative, liberal, anarchistic—every point of view was not only able to be expressed, but respectfully so.

To be clear I did observe stimulated debate and vocal disagreement between parties, but at no point did participants attempt to repress or subdue opposing points of view. Every issue that had an advocate or a voice was given a platform and designated place to express itself. Given what we know to be the very opposite case in many societies around the world, OWS, if almost because of its many inherent contradictions, at its core, is a movement that celebrates the right of free speech, a right that can easily be taken for granted were it not for the existence of a movement like OWS that displays it so prominently.

For these reasons—unity in frustration over an economic system that many would agree creates serious divisions and disenfranchises the least able among us and, as a testament to free speech as a vital component of democratic society—we all should be very proud, if not grateful, that OWS took root first in this country and clearly has inspired many around the world to raise their voices for change.

OWS also serves as an important reminder that democracy is always messy. But would we really rather have it any other way?