Occupy movement represents real democracy
The apparently spontaneous and leaderless assembly to Occupy Wall Street that first appeared in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, on Sept. 17, 2011, was initially dismissed by critics as a flash-in-the-pan demonstration by the unwashed who, in their view, should instead go take a bath, and then go out and get a job. Since then, the Occupy movement has spread across the entire United States, bursting out in cities, towns and communities, as well as abroad, revealing itself to be a relentless, continuing demonstration of peoples’ determination to attain their basic legal, political, economic, social and human rights. Its aim is to Occupy America.The common theme of the Occupy movement everywhere is to stand up for the needs and equitable rights of the 99 percent of the population as against the 1 percent of self-styled “elites” who have cornered the lion’s share of wealth, power and influence, all too often through what is increasingly seen as ill-gotten means, by stacking the cards in favor of the few over the many.Two of us snowbirds from Connecticut flew south this winter to find the sun and to experience the Occupy movement in Florida. We joined in Occupy Martin County assemblies, planning meetings, marches, sign-wavings and sit-ins in Stuart and nearby towns, occupying public spaces, street corners, public buildings and a federal courthouse.Strikingly, the kinds of citizens who show up as Occupiers here have a very “washed,” upper-middle class, educated, intelligent, articulate, concerned and, yes, patriotic demeanor. They include many Democrats, the unaffiliated and libertarians, as well as some Republicans.The Occupiers have evolved a new type of grassroots participatory meeting, not based on Robert’s Rules of Order, but ensuring that everyone has his or her say and vote, and decisions are reached largely by consensus. Hand signals are used to gain the floor, vote or express approval (wriggled fingers up), disapproval (wriggled fingers down) or no opinion (fingers horizontal). If a speaker cannot be heard, nearby persons may repeat the remark more loudly, to spread like a human megaphone. There are no official leaders or governing body, but there are voluntary “facilitators” and activists who keep it all going, and help link up and network with other Occupy groups across the state.During the Occupiers’ “soap box” sessions, a variety of local community, state and national issues come up, such as protecting the environment, jobs, labor rights, affordable housing, education, redistricting, campaign finance reform, food programs and protection of Social Security and Medicare. The common theme for all of this is “we are the 99 percent.”Practical means of effective protest are considered and acted upon. For example, in Martin County, Florida, many Occupiers have expressed their anger toward some of the bigger banks, such as Bank of America, by closing out their personal accounts and transferring the balances to smaller local banks and credit unions, such as the Florida Transportation Credit Union, where better services and rate conditions are obtained.Relations with the local police here in Florida can be downright warm and fuzzy. At a recent Occupy event in front of the federal courthouse in Fort Pierce, authorized by official permit, the police and Homeland Security agents not only openly welcomed and joked with the Occupiers, they protected them from outside interference. Thus when a particularly abrasive woman attempted to dress down the Occupiers as “doing everything wrong” and threatened to call 911, the local police and Homeland Security agents drove her off for lack of a permit. The police have been highly cooperative; after all, as they themselves admitted, they too are part of the 99 percent.The Occupy Martin County General Assembly has decided to welcome any political candidate for local, state or federal office who so wishes to come and “dialogue” on issues of mutual concern. Excessively partisan politics are to be avoided. To keep on track, three “litmus test” questions have been suggested for discussion:• Are corporations people — why or why not?• Should the financial industry be regulated — why or why not?• Should the 1 percent pay their fair share of taxes — why or why not?The Occupy movement, as exemplified here in Florida, represents a return to original American democratic values and practices. It is an exercise in real democracy, as distinguished from the partial democracy or “plutocracy” of the super rich, or the “oligarchy”of the powerful few. Indeed, the Occupy movement is in many ways reminiscent of the early beginnings of our American Revolution, the war for independence and the birth of a constitutional democratic nation, in the 18th century when groups of ordinary, middle-class citizens met in coffee houses and other venues to discuss their ideas, needs and desires for a future American society that would be more free, more egalitarian and allow greater opportunity for the “pursuit of happiness” for all Americans.No, the critics got it all wrong. The Occupy movement is legitimate and widespread, and it isn’t going away any time soon. Sharon resident Anthony Piel is a former Citibanker and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.