I had stopped by the Occupy encampment in Madison, Wisconsin several times in the past few weeks to participate in a march or to drop off sidewalk chalk or a donation. I had not until Saturday night participated in a General Assembly. I’m going to continue to donate chalk and ten-dollar bills, but I cannot yet see even the seeds of an alternate model for effective, responsive democratic government.
I don’t want to make fun of the assembly. Truly, I don’t. Sparkle fingers and all. The General Assembly in which I participated seemed to be a valuable healing process for people who have felt shut out of the political debate and a training ground for those who had never before tried to participate. Jesse LaGreca of YouTube fame stopped by and gave a short but rousing speech.
I had visited the Occupy information booth at noon to ask about the agenda that evening. I was told that it would include a discussion of how the Madison occupation would relate to the national movement. I wanted to be part of that discussion.
As long as I stayed last night, however, the longest discussion—around 30 minutes—was about whether the newly designated security team would have the group’s permission to ask heavily intoxicated people to leave the information tent.
The conflict stemmed from a poignant situation. The Occupy group set itself up in a paved pedestrian mall nicely shielded by nearby buildings, within sight of the state Capitol. Unaware of street culture, they did not realize that a handful of homeless alcoholics already had dibs on that spot. It was as much of a home as they had.
The homeless men seem to have welcomed the newcomers, with their free food and pleasant company. But the old-timers' comportment has not been up to standards. A few Occupy women felt uncomfortable and the security committee began to fear that an overturned coffeepot would cause a medical emergency, a misplaced cigarette would cause a fire, or a disagreement would escalate into a fight and give the police an excuse to clear the camp.
I doubt the homeless men ever before had the opportunity to stand wobbling, beverage in one hand, microphone in the other, to defend their drinking habits in front of a politely attentive crowd. Life’s been hard for us, one said. Alcohol is how we deal with it. Another pointed out that if drunkeness is forbidden in the main tent, they might not ever be able to come in because "Many of us are “pretty much buzzed 24/7.” Even though they were there first, they explained, they didn't mind sharing the area.
Several of the occupiers spoke compassionately, but none spoke in favor of letting the homeless men stay when they were drunk. None made any counterproposal such as renting them a room in a flophouse for the duration (See update below) or moving the political occupation to a corner where no homeless occupation was already underway. After one occupier pointed out the homeless men were undeniably among the 99 percent, another warned against “saying that some people are more 99 percent than others.”
In the end, the security committee was given authority to ask drunken people to leave. The security team then ejected a rejected and now angry drunk.
There were other committee reports, most of which I cannot recall even 24 hours later. If you are deeply curious about the policy for marking and disposing of paper coffee cups at the Madison Occupy site, I’m sorry to disappoint but I won’t describe it here. Go to a general assembly yourself and put it on the agenda again.
So why am I still supportive? Because expression of feelings is as valuable in a democracy as policy proposals. The outpouring of anger and frustration—even in the absence of a well-developed ten-point platform—has refocused the political debate in this country in a way that years of more traditional activism has been unable to.
“The beauty of Occupy,” wrote one of my Facebook friends from the Madison site, “is that it’s a truly open, transparent process where anyone can voice their opinion, and the group comes to a consensus.” It’s not about policy, he explained. It’s about “process and philosophy. I’m not sure people will be able to understand what Occupy is truly about until they experience that firsthand.”
LaGreca echoed that sentiment. He urged the crowd to resist the pressure to articulate demands. If they must produce any demand, let it be “Respect me. Hear me. I am a person, I am a citizen, and my needs matter.”
Those sentiments won't get the banks regulated or the taxes--or even the garbage--collected. They won't get a governor recalled. But in a democracy, they are critical. The Occupy movement is bringing people from their couches into the streets and is making politicians take a moment away from attending to their corporate sponsors to hear the people's concerns.
And that's a good thing. I'm in.
UPDATE: On Monday, one of the occupiers posted this on the Facebook wall of Occupy Madison: "I will be taking some time in the next few days to contact some of the local support networks to inquire about bringing down additional professional services to further augment the support. Will be looking for at least alcohol counseling help and general support services to try and find warm and stable living situations for as many as possible."