Another voice: Reclaiming the conversation and revisioning democracy

October 30, 2011

We see and hear a lot of people asking, what is the Occupy Wall Street Movement really about? It is about ordinary folks coming together to learn how to rebuild a democracy that responds to the needs and direction of the people as a whole.

For years people have watched in dismay as they tried to live and work honestly and humbly in the ways they were taught would bring them a good and dignified life, only to see it taken away. Countless people in rural and small-town Oregon are deeply frustrated about the loss of jobs and the suffering that brings, about widening and crushing inequality in our state and nation, losing their life savings to wild Wall Street schemes, then losing tax dollars to Wall Street bail-outs and their homes to foreclosure by the same banking regime.

Even many who obtained a college education with its promise of solid opportunities can no longer find decent employment. Now, incomes reduced or disappeared, savings and assets depleted, vast swaths of ordinary people find themselves buried under huge mounds of debt to the very banks that caused this deep and long recession; their present days full of anxiety and suffering, their futures bleak.

People turned to their elected representatives, but watched in dismay at the outrageous spectacles of a Congress unable or unwilling get anything at all done to help anyone but the already rich and powerful. The dominant conversation from the political classes and major media focused almost exclusively on pushing austerity and sacrifice on ordinary people, while creating even more prosperity for Wall Street, huge corporations and the wealthiest people. As the stock market, corporate profits, Wall Street bonuses and the income and riches of the top 1 percent skyrocketed, the quality of most people's lives plummeted.

The Occupy movements all over the United States and the world, including rural and small-town Oregon, are first and foremost about changing the conversation. This is where we can hear the increasing crescendo of voices refusing to allow their needs and struggles to go unheeded even one more day. Where the conversations come from We The People, not the centers of money power.

Visit an Occupy Wall Street camp or meeting and you will hear the conversations about receiving far too little for our hard work, about our diminishing common resources being increasingly diverted to pad the obscene wealth of the very few; about how decent employment is no longer considered the norm, but a privilege bestowed by the rich to be cut or shipped away at any moment to increase profits.

Conversations about basic health and dental care being unaffordable for most families; of collapsing local and state budgets where the poor pay more of their income in taxes and fees than the wealthy. Conversations about total neglect for the neediest among us, whose very lives depend on the type of public assistance this nation was once proud to provide.

Conversations about roads and bridges crumbling, schools decaying physically and pedagogically, social safety nets the people paid to build being raided for private profit. Officials who promised to look after the people's interests looking solely after the interests of their biggest donors.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement is about lifting up the vast majority of us who have been excluded from the dominant conversation about fairness and basic human dignity in our society. Movements have always amplified voices -and occupy movements will amplify a conversation long awaited - imagining a society that serves the needs of all of its people.

In addition to changing the subject of conversation, Occupy assemblies are changing how conversations occur and decisions are made. The conversation invites all people to add the voice of their experience. All are allowed to speak and all are respected. Decisions are made by the group through a process of consensus that requires deep engagement and a dedication to the best interests of all members beyond simply trying to push personal agendas or goals.

There is tremendous power in these occupy conversations. As people talk about the ways their lives are being harmed, offer their suggestions for action, and really feel heard, their shaky self-images and past humiliations turn into compassion and self-respect. Surprisingly quickly, people begin to rediscover themselves and the fact that they are not alone. They become empowered to believe they can spur positive and lasting change in our society despite all they have been told and all the ways they have been put down and blocked out of the centers of power.

The Occupy movement invites us all to take another small bite into a political and economic system that seems so big and formidable and impenetrable. They invite each of us to build a deeper understanding of the sources and the impacts of our neighborhood crises. They invite to us to go to public spaces, take up residence and, finally, talk to each other.

The conversations of occupying communities will ultimately make for more powerful democratic neighborhoods and institutions.

Whatever the major media and politicians tell you, that is what is happening in the parks, on the streets and in occupied public spaces throughout Oregon. The people are peaceably assembling and standing up for a principle not long ago well accepted, but lately cast by the dominant messengers in our society as tool of radicalism: They stand for the principle that what almost every one wants and needs should matter in a democracy.

Rev. John Boonstra, of Hood River, is pastor of Bethel United Church of Christ in White Salmon, and is chair of Gorge Ecumenical Ministries. Bruce Morris is executive director of the Human Dignity Coalition in Bend.

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