On the day the occupation of Wall Street began, one chant from the crowd stood out for me: “This is what democracy looks like!” In six simple words, it summed up what this revolutionary action was all about.
I’ve been to protests and rallies before. They’ve all amounted to sound and fury signifying nothing: an energized crowd screaming at the top of their lungs about an issue, patting one another on the back for being there, and never achieving anything more than annoying their targets and unsympathetic bystanders. But when I saw Adbusters’ initial call to occupy lower Manhattan, I knew it wasn’t going to be just a protest.
It began at Bowling Green Park with a standard gathering of sign-wielding, slogan-chanting indignants, bellowing inspirational speeches through megaphones from atop stone steps. An energizing and empowering two-and-a-half hours, which, if it were any standard protest, would have just petered out afterwards with all that energy left floating aimlessly, nowhere to go. But the occupation of Wall Street was never a protest. It was an assembly.
We took that momentum from our chanting and shouting, and harnessed it immediately, marching to nearby Zuccotti Park for a people’s general assembly. Everyone gathered together in this public square, formed small groups, and talked. We talked about why we were angry with our government and the financial industries that had corrupted them. We discussed what we believed could fix all of these problems, and what we should demand from the powers-that-be before we would end our occupation.
Later that night, the groups converged into one large mass, for a group discussion facilitated — not led — by several volunteers. We communicated with a peculiar “people’s megaphone” system of call-and-response; a speaker would say a sentence, and everyone nearby would repeat it loudly so that the entire group could hear. Individuals took turns speaking and bringing up proposals, with the facilitators taking occasional straw polls to see where the group was leaning.
After one day, the only consensus formed seemed to be around logistical issues: where would the group sleep that night, what would we be doing about getting food and blankets for everybody, etcetera. The ideological goal remained a broad swath of calls for economic justice for the time being. But the fact that we — a group of active, participating citizens in the United States of Apathy — had even taken that first step to come together in public and have such a discussion was momentous.
This was not a political forum sponsored and organized by a party. This was a gathering of people who no longer wanted to be mere taxpayers and voters, but citizens. An acknowledgement that it’s not enough to just check off a name on a ballot and hope that everything turns out okay. And based on this one idea — that it should be people, not money and corruption, in control of society — a swarm came together in lower Manhattan to make it happen. We got up from our computers and took to the streets to make real democracy happen.
And it’s still happening. It’s messy, chaotic, sometimes frustrating, and yet always empowering. This is what democracy looks like: a swarm of people, in it for the long haul, working together for a better world.