The Commons: How to Occupy the 100 Percent
Lord Admiral Horatio Byrd, following his true dream, became a florist after the great war; by Matte Stephens
Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, while visiting my wife’s family in Los Angeles, we purchased a bag of groceries to distribute to protestors and brought our tents and sleeping bags to sleep in the Occupy Los Angeles encampment on the lawn of City Hall. While there, we met some fascinating people, such as a joyful man from Africa who had once been tortured in his country, escaped as a refugee, and had become a pilot in the United States, achieving a measure of middle-class success. But then the recession cost him his job and eventually his home. He now cheerfully staffed the volunteer table, recognizing the importance of the land of opportunity retaining the economic mobility he came for.
We talked with another fellow from El Salvador who had been conscripted into the army as a teen and been forced to kill, which had been a truly hellish time for him. After escaping to the United States, he built a successful home alarm business, making a six-figure income and employing a small team. The recession had cost him his business and his home but not his pride. He was one of the first in the Occupy LA encampment and had become a source of support for others; his tent even had a small solar panel for generating electricity, which he would share when others needed to recharge their batteries.
With each Occupy resident we met, the walls of separation would come down, dissolving the distance that I subtly felt between myself and the Occupiers. Throughout our brief time in the camp, we were treated with open arms. We marveled at the ingenious ways in which the encampment had rallied to provide basics of infrastructure, communication, and governance. Some of the leaders had a wonderful spirit of oneness, even with the police, who were planning to evict them all in a few days. One group offered healing services. Others had created Native American altars. There were moments of poignant solidarity.
On the flip side, we witnessed a fair amount of drunken disorderliness as some turned the encampment into a party. Trash was everywhere. Some people were clearly mentally ill and in real need of help. Some were fresh out of jail and more eager to pick a fight with the police. Others were clearly there out of boredom. There was a shadow side of aimless rebellion for its own sake rather than the focused, disciplined, nonviolent resistance that leaders like Gandhi taught.
After spending about 24 hours in the encampment, finding points of real connection with the protestors while also feeling sobered by the suffering, we drove back up the coast toward the San Francisco Bay Area and intentionally stayed in a sumptuous bed and breakfast with a hot tub in the room overlooking the Pacific and wine and cheese in the afternoon. It was an evening of living as the 1 percent, embracing the beauty such a lifestyle can provide. We had moments of guilt and real empathy as we thought of those in the encampment who faced an impending eviction from the police with nowhere to go. The injustice in the situation was clearly apparent. But the truth is that those at the inn who were in a 1 percent lifestyle mode were also decent and kind, perhaps just enjoying a romantic getaway. They might be building businesses that employ people or leading nonprofits that produce real change and just wanting to explore the grace, beauty, and grandeur of the coast. They were not the enemy.
The point for us was not to get too cozy in either identity but to embrace the full spectrum and take seriously the truths held on all sides. We went from sleeping on the hard ground one night, with earplugs to block the noise of passing buses, to staying in an oasis of elegance. If we allow ourselves to get too comfortable in the upscale lifestyle, we can become dissociated from the very real suffering of those who have been marginalized and lose touch with how to help in constructive ways. And if we allow ourselves only to see ourselves as the protestors of an unjust system, an essential truth is also lost—that there is much value in what capitalism has produced.
On Not Becoming Too “Occupied”
If circumstances were only slightly different we could be on the other end of many things we judge. If I grew up in a slum, I doubt whether I could be where I am today. If I grew up the child of wealth, I might not ever be able to understand what it’s like not to have rent money. As someone who has been given a great deal of opportunity, I feel very motivated to give back and to help our systems evolve in a more balanced, just, and compassionate way. The Occupy protestors illuminated some important truths about a system that has come off its moorings and needs deep shifts to realign itself to the noble values that can help us uplevel the American Dream and political operating system. While appreciating that our system does need to evolve, it doesn’t help to judge, hate, or condemn wealthy people, for they are the ones who are often most pivotal in shifting those systems.
What you can do
- If You Have 10 Minutes…Contemplate the class of society you are afraid to occupy, and why.
- If You Have $10… Find out how long you can eat on that much.
- If You Have a Month… Immerse yourself in a group with radically different values.
- If You Have $100… Invest in an experience that scares you.