You Can Crush the Flowers, But You Can’t Stop the Spring
By Rebecca Solnit
Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you (or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.
Of course, “camped out” doesn’t quite catch the spirit of the moment, because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of the way we have awoken.
When civil society sleeps, we’re just a bunch of individuals absorbed in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere, when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities are terrified. They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for violence and for hypocrisy.
Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall this item included in a bald list of events that night: “tear-gassing the kitchen tent.” Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be attacked with chemical weapons?
Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as disposable, but not usually so literally.
Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began. The response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them foolish. After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they’d try to soothe it back to sleep.) “Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can’t arrest an idea!” said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.
Last Wednesday in San Francisco, 100 activists occupied the Bank of America, even erecting a symbolic tent inside it in which a dozen activists immediately took refuge. At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, setting up tents on any grounds was forbidden, so the brilliant young occupiers used clusters of helium balloons to float tents overhead, a smart image of defiance and sky-high ambition. And the valiant UC Davis students, after several of them were pepper-sprayed in the face while sitting peacefully on the ground, evicted the police, chanting, “You can go! You can go!” They went.
Occupy Oakland has been busted up three times and still it thrives. To say nothing of the other 1,600 occupations in the growing movement.
Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, once said, “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.”
The busting of Zuccotti Park and the effervescent, ingenious demonstrations elsewhere are a reminder that, despite the literal “occupations” on which this protean movement has been built, it can soar as high as those Berkeley balloons and take many unexpected forms. Another OWS sign, “The beginning is near,” caught the mood of the moment. Flowers seem like the right image for this uprising led by the young, those who have been most crushed by the new economic order, and who bloom by rebelling and rebel by blooming.
The Best and the Worst
Now world-famous Zuccotti Park is just a small concrete and brown marble-paved scrap of land surrounded by tall buildings. Despite the “Occupy Wall Street” label, it’s actually two blocks north of that iconic place. It’s rarely noted that the park is within sight of, and kitty-corner to, Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers crumbled.
What was born and what died that day a decade ago has everything to do with what’s going on in and around the park, the country, and the world now. For this, al-Qaeda is remarkably irrelevant, except as the outfit that long ago triggered an incident that instantly released both the best and the worst in our society.
The best was civil society. As I wandered in the Zuccotti Park area last week, I was struck again by how much what really happened on the morning of September 11th has been willfully misremembered. It can be found nowhere in the plaques and monuments. Firemen more than deserve their commemorations, but mostly they acted in vain, on bad orders from above, and with fatally flawed communications equipment. The fact is: the people in the towers and the neighborhood -- think of them as civil society coming together in crisis -- largely rescued themselves, and some of them told the firefighters to head down, not up.
We need memorials to the coworkers who carried their paraplegic accountant colleague down 69 flights of stairs while in peril themselves; to Ada Rosario-Dolch, the principal who got all of the High School for Leadership, a block away, safely evacuated, while knowing her sister had probably been killed in one of those towers; to the female executives who walked the blind newspaper seller to safety in Greenwich Village; to the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93, who were the only ones to combat terrorism effectively that day; and to countless, nameless others. We need monuments to ourselves, to civil society.
Ordinary people shone that morning. They were not terrorized; they were galvanized into action, and they were heroic. And it didn’t stop with that morning either. That day, that week they began to talk about what the events of 9/11 actually meant for them, and they acted to put their world back together, practically and philosophically. All of which terrified the Bush administration, which soon launched not only its “global war on terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan, but a campaign against civil society. It was aimed at convincing each of us that we should stay home, go shopping, fear everything except the government, and spy on each other.
The only monument civil society ever gets is itself, and the satisfaction of continuing to do the work that matters, the work that has no bosses and no paychecks, the work of connecting, caring, understanding, exploring, and transforming. So much about Occupy Wall Street resonates with what came in that brief moment a decade before and then was shut down for years.
That little park that became “occupied” territory brought to mind the way New York’s Union Square became a great public forum in the weeks after 9/11, where everyone could gather to mourn, connect, discuss, debate, bear witness, share food, donate or raise money, write on banners, and simply live in public. (Until the city shut that beautiful forum down in the name of sanitation -- that sacred cow which by now must be mating with the Wall Street Bull somewhere in the vicinity of Zuccotti Park.)
It was remarkable how many New Yorkers lived in public in those weeks after 9/11. Numerous people have since told me nostalgically of how the normal boundaries came down, how everyone made eye contact, how almost anyone could talk to almost anyone else. Zuccotti Park and the other Occupies I’ve visited -- Oakland, San Francisco, Tucson, New Orleans -- have been like that, too. You can talk to strangers. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to, so much do people want to talk, to tell their stories, to hear yours, to discuss our mutual plight and what solutions to it might look like.
It’s as though the great New York-centric moment of openness after 9/11, when we were ready to reexamine our basic assumptions and look each other in the eye, has returned, and this time it’s not confined to New York City, and we’re not ready to let anyone shut it down with rubbish about patriotism and peril, safety and sanitation.
It’s as if the best of the spirit of the Obama presidential campaign of 2008 was back -- without the foolish belief that one man could do it all for civil society. In other words, this is a revolt, among other things, against the confinement of decision-making to a thoroughly corrupted and corporate-money-laced electoral sphere and against the pitfalls of leaders. And it represents the return in a new form of the best of the post-9/11 moment.
As for the worst after 9/11 -- you already know the worst. You’ve lived it. The worst was two treasury-draining wars that helped cave in the American dream, a loss of civil liberties, privacy, and governmental accountability. The worst was the rise of a national security state to almost unimaginable proportions, a rogue state that is our own government, and that doesn’t hesitate to violate with impunity the Geneva Convention, the Bill of Rights, and anything else it cares to trash in the name of American "safety" and "security." The worst was blind fealty to an administration that finished off making this into a country that serves the 1% at the expense, or even the survival, of significant parts of the 99%. More recently, it has returned as another kind of worst: police brutality (speaking of blind fealty to the 1%).
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