Among Occupy Poughkeepsie

A week or so ago, I joined a number of clergy in meeting with some of the hardy folks who had been camping in the park bordered by Church (East Arterial) and Market Streets, in the local form of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.  There were about a dozen tents, perhaps half of them for those who would stay in the park overnight.  The rest were used for meetings, food preparation and storage.

We talked to a few participants who were present.  Many of the regular demonstrators hold down jobs or attend school.  The numbers therefore would constantly wax and wane.  The demonstration had begun in late October.  It was now December, and they were giving serious thought to pulling up stakes in the park in favor of an indoor location.

We were talking for a while when three city officials – from the Police and Fire Departments, and from City Hall – showed up with an order demanding the group to pull down the tents, clear out their equipment and vacate, as they were in violation of the city ordinance.  Signs were indeed clearly posted that declared the park closed from 11pm to 6am.  The officials were formal and polite, but I could tell that they were also uncomfortable.  Maybe it was the presence of a dozen area clergy.  I think, however, they also recognized that they had been sent by higher-ups in what was essentially a political calculation.

After all, from day 1, the Occupy demonstration was in violation of the city ordinance.  Thus, for about six-weeks, authorities had permitted the technically impermissible.  One could raise a legitimate concern about a fire hazard – the occupiers had been using gas grills.  Otherwise, the Occupy group was scrupulous in keeping the area clean and orderly.  They kept the basketball court – the chief attraction of the park – clear.  Only if you considered the tents an eyesore could you complain that they were in any way disturbing the peace.  There was no basis for the timing of the vacate order, and the officials knew it.

The orders were given, the demonstrators were equally polite.  The tents, however, remained for a few more days.  They are gone now, although a few demonstrators still show up at the corner of Church and Market in order to make their presence felt.

Occupy What?

             The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is strange phenomenon.  In our conversation with the Poughkeepsie demonstrators, it was clear that, outside of the “We Are The 99%” slogan, the program and aims of the group were inchoate.  The demonstrators were determined, however, to make themselves a presence; to be a physical witness to something being wrong in the social fabric of the country.  They were also dedicated to full participatory democracy.  Meetings were held a few evenings a week in which any decisions that had to be made were through consensus.  Everyone had a right to their opinion, and there is a full range of opinions!  So, no program or manifesto has been issued.  Networking, however, goes on for those who express the need of a service.  The most frequent issue raised is that of foreclosures.

OWS looks like the demonstrations that characterized the Arab Spring, and also much like the tent city that went up in Tel Aviv this past summer.  It can be connected as well to the “Hoovervilles” – the shanty towns that occupied public space in the early years of the American Great Depression.  And finally, there is a connection to the Tea Party protests of 2009 and 2010.  All of these antecedents can be called to mind because all of them represent a popular and public sense of disaffection.  The attack is directed specifically at the perceived sources of power: that we are being led down the wrong path.  The wrongness of the direction of the country is certain.  What is right, however, is inchoate and elusive.

How does OWS differ from the Tea Party?  I think the principal difference is that the Tea Party has focused virtually all of its dissatisfaction on government.  In this fashion, its impact was felt in the 2010 elections.  OWS, on the other hand, represents a much broader indictment of society.  Government is a problem, but electoral change without other fundamental reforms would only be a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.

There has already been a definitive backlash to the efforts of the Tea Party.  At this time, I think however, although the physical occupations that have been effectively cleared out throughout the country, OWS has been a “shot across the bow” of a much larger transformative effort.  I would like to touch on that notion in a future post.

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