Democracy is a simple, convoluted, elegantly messy, greatly loathed and much beloved thing. The word means rule by the many. If you’ve ever found it impossible to come to any semblance of a decision with a very few friends, you can understand how decision-making amongst the many would present, shall we say, difficulties. Those of us who so cherish democracy do so in much the same way that we cherish friends or family members who, however much we may love them, seem to inevitably frustrate us in one way or another. Democracy requires cooperation and communication, and in such matters, humans excel at failure. Democracy often amounts to a lot of people slamming a lot of things a lot of other people allegedly believe, did, or are trying to do, but really don’t, didn’t, or aren’t trying to do. It takes some time to sort through those communicative lumps before the body politic can even begin to attempt to cooperate. Democracy is messy.
So, it comes as no surprise that critics of the Occupy movement (a movement against unaccountable, irresponsible political and economic powers) have found plenty of ammunition for their disdainful commentary on it in the inherent obstacles presented by its use of democratic processes. Its critics, sponsored by corporate mafiosi, accuse it of being nothing more than a collection of angry mobs. They insist that it is far too disorganized, aimless. Occasionally, some commentator (invariably, of the ignoramus sort) will accuse the movement of being made up of hippies, communists, or those who protest for sport. All this is easy enough to do when local assemblies are yet in the early stages of the democratic process, struggling to speak as one. The critics sit in their corporate towers deriding the Occupy movement and attempting to laugh it off. But they laugh quite nervously, for it has come to their attention in the first place because it is growing at an alarming rate. Something is happening in America and around the world, down there at the grassroots level. A new politics is developing, and corporate interests are realizing they’ve had no hand in it, something to which they are not accustomed. The shift in consciousness is palpable; the many are calling out the powers that be. Those unaccustomed to being held accountable for their actions are growing uneasy. For all its flaws, democracy, carried out by the many exercising their own power, has been effective enough to incite a chorus of critics to try – and I do mean try – to put an end to it.
Occupy Miami, of which I’ve been a participant since its first general assembly meeting, has seen its share of success, as well as its share of problems. While the first general assembly meeting went off without a hitch, the second such meeting did not. As rain poured down on downtown Miami, the assembly was forced to move away from its usual location in Bayfront Park to Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Campus. Attempts to move the assembly forward on any order of business were met with such fierce resistance by a few extra-vocal participants that they were repeatedly derailed. For a time it seemed that nothing would ever get done. Frustrated participants yelled at each other. Again and again, focus shifted from one issue to an entirely unrelated issue. Cameras and onlookers observed the calamity. One woman commented: “We’re acting like Congress!”
Never doubt that democracies can get it together. See, that comment very much inspired the assembly to take corrective action. We refused to be like Congress, squabbling with each other and accomplishing nothing. We broke up into various groups, miniature democracies in themselves, each group choosing a facilitator to maintain smooth discussion. Within these groups, functioning on a more personal level, we cooperated and communicated efficiently. No longer an anonymous mass, but very real individuals with needs, we began to make the democratic process work. Such is the nature of democracy: if it is not working, we must make it work.
The critics insist that the Occupy movement is foolish because they cannot understand that it is truly as grassroots as any movement can possibly be. This means that it is a democratic movement where concerns are outlined by individual participants working together. No doubt, that democracy is untidy. Nevertheless, we are defying critics’ expectations. In less than a month, the Occupy movement has spread like a wildfire across America. In two weeks, Occupy Miami, but one branch of the movement, has grown to a seeming six hundred active participants, with seven thousand fans on Facebook. There are over six hundred separate general assemblies throughout the country, and many more are emerging. We’ve found commonalities: all of us are fed up with political and economic powers that refuse to be made accountable to the public. Perhaps that is exactly what our critics wish we’d shut up about. The general assembly of Occupy Wall Street in New York has issued a manifesto listing grievances, all essentially settling on the question of accountability of the powers that be to the public, insisting that government must put the needs of everyday people before the needs of the wealthy few.
The democracy of the Occupy movement is one of the disenfranchised general public, a public estranged from the national conversation, our voices drowned out by the talking heads on TV, the lobbying dollars of corporate America, and the bursting bombs of unceasing warfare. For all its messiness, democracy is a beautiful thing. Democracy is the voice of the whole, with its concerns rooted in the common good, rather than the voice of the insulated few. That is an incredible thing. It gives that guy you don’t like a voice, that nutcase a voice, but it also gives you a voice. It’s every bit as complex and difficult as we individuals can be, but out of its many convolutions comes common concern for the common good, shared bonds of affection. The silenced speak.