As I watch videos of the tear-gas filled streets of Oakland and a young marine veteran being carried by shaken protesters after receiving a skull fracture from what appears to be a police man's used tear gas canister, one thought fills my heart and moves my pen:
IT'S MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER TO STAY CREATIVE!
With risks of increased violence and rapidly approaching winter, it remains a necessity for we in the Occupy Movement to continue to cultivate positive and creative actions that defy easy categorization. The easy narratives: roving-anarchist-mobs or victimized-civilians-beset-by-brutal-free-speech-hating-police, either (depending on one's choice in media and political orientation) drain the movement from what has made it potent thus far, an unexpectedly living creativity.
Where can one look for examples of such consistent redefinition?
The Burning Man Arts Festival may be one example. For twenty-five years, Burning Man has acted as a laboratory for new human culture, helping to define the "new edge" movement. As anyone who has been can tell you - the week-long experience in the Nevada desert radically alters one's belief in what is humanly possible and what might be the limits of human society. Reading the festival's mission statement one can imagine many of the same sentences describing the activities of Liberty Plaza.
Burning Man is governed by ten principles; Radical Inclusion, Gifting, De-commodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation and Immediacy. These principles are enacted within the Occupy Movement and in countless other progressive initiatives that sparkle with the solutions to much of what ails the world. Rarely are such principles so clearly articulated and so radically lived out (even if only temporarily).
A picture gains objectivity by being viewed from multiple perspectives. I believe both movements express an underlying impulse toward societal wholeness. What do the different expressions of this impulse have to teach each other?
Just as it is dismissive to claim that Occupy Wall Street is a liberal version of the Tea Party or a copycat reenactment of the marches of the 1960s, it is equally inaccurate to write-off Burning Man as simply a neo-Pagan rave in the desert. There are certainly elements of each that rightly lead to such comparisons, but both also offer up a much more difficult to describe lived experience that denies reference to other phenomenon that has come before. Both experiences can suggest a very radical thing - that another world is possible. Burning Man has articulated ten guiding principals at work creating a self-organizing ethos that produce outcomes that defy easy definition. These principals can't be owned and are resistant to traditional marketing. Reading them or seeing them enacted on video pale in comparison to experiencing them in the flesh. These principles are the result of a living experiment from the cultural realm that may just have matured to a place where it can lend new vision to a political and an economic system in sore need of renaissance.
What might an arts festival offer as a practical solution to a difficulty that the protesters now face?
The one "rule" for the week when the temporary city in the Black Rock desert swells to over 50,000 people (if such a thing as rules can be said to exist at Burning Man) — is to stay hydrated. The participants themselves generate a consistent message that everyone should be sure they are drinking enough that they "piss clear.” It's about personal responsibility — and in the harsh desert environment, hydration can be a matter of life and death.
While obviously different in some respects, I would suggest that there is (and must remain) a similarly "rule" that is able to seep deeply into the ethos of the Occupy Movement: "No Violence.” Remaining nonviolent is vital to its continued existence. Just as the many distractions and unusual natural environment at Burning Man can lead to overlooking the need to keep enough liquids in your body, so too, the protest environment provides a challenge to maintaining the nonviolence necessary to bring about true societal transformation. With emotions running high and a porous skin that encourages new people to join in, there always remains a risk of violent factions acting from within an otherwise peaceful crowd or of a mob mentality rushing through otherwise clear thinking individuals. And violence isn't just about throwing rocks or bottles, it's also about personalizing one's anger through aggressive language and dehumanizing thoughts.
Dehydration can set in without one noticing it and can quite quickly become difficult to reverse — aggression can also quickly sweep a line of police offers or a protesting crowd. What's interesting about dehydration is that one stops being thirsty. You begin to have a head ache and slip into a bad mood, and the one thing that you most desperately need, water, doesn't sound good to you. This is where "Piss Clear" as a foundational aspect of the Burning Man culture comes in. Like a mantra during meditation, it brings you back to yourself whatever the distraction (and trust me, at burning man there is every sort of distraction you can imagine).
I know very well the euphoric feeling of being amongst a thousand fellow protestors marching down a road which is usually occupied by cars. Chanting "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" can be utterly exhilarating. You feel a part of something powerful and important — and therein, also lies a danger. It's easy to lose humility and for self-righteousness to set in. You can almost feel the crowd begin to imagine themselves as modern day Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhis. "We're the good guys standing up to war and inequality!" And the police paint quite a force of darkness in their storm trooper riot gear and gas masks. It's easy for the police to provide a convenient stand-in for the far more amorphous human attributes of vengeance and greed that are coursing through our own personalities and institutionalized all around us.
It's easy for a protest march or direct action to become manic. One moment it feels like a victory lap ("We're doing it! There are tens of thousands of us — nobody can stop us now!") and the next it can turn very, very fearful as human aggression and confusion show their ugly faces.
We in the Occupy Movement must be alert to falling into the protestors vs. police narrative that the media would have us follow. We must be alert to the powerful pull this script can have on us police and protestors who are creating the story. If the Movement falls into this trap it will die. The media coverage will soar — but exactly those people most needed in the squares and on the streets will begin to stay home. It won't be just fear of violence or arrest that keeps people on the sidelines — it will be because the creativity has leaked out of the movement.
Millions of Americans (not to mention those around the world) have been following these occupations with reserved but growing admiration for the occupiers. It's not just the earnest idealism that is infectious — it's also just straight up more fun to be engaged with beautiful human beings in a cause you all believe in, than it is to interface with the world from behind a computer screen! The thoughts, feelings and actions being embodied in this movement are coming from a brighter future. Even behind those computer screens, one can glimpse the future through the videos, the stories and the thousands of individually painted cardboard signs.
In the end, I believe this is the real battleground: the imaginations of the millions of Americans with the high mortgages and ever lower faith in the American dream. This is the population that fuels the capitalist machine. This is the population that is gaining a suspicion that the old ways of organizing society aren't working so well. The vocal progressive minority is and has been just that — a minority that the dominating system has made allowances for. I believe that twelve years into the twenty-first century the truest battle ground is our notion of the future.
What sort of world is possible? When images of riots and American cities turned into war zones fill the air waves — we've lost the most potent medicine that this movement has been applying to the wounded psyche of a cynical population. We need images of hope and examples of caring communities. Not as fantasy, but as practical solutions to the deep anguish and apathy eating its way through American households. Whether suburban McMansions or inner city housing projects — the "America Dream" is bankrupt.
The true movement underway right now is not a protest, it's an affirmation.
This movement is pointing out that what appears like an economic-downturn-falling-sky is actually a veil being dropped. The darkened vision of greed and self-centered power is falling away in a world too fragile and interconnected to continue supporting such a vision.
These ten principals, being enacted right now around the world in so many ways large and small, largely invisible from the media and our collective consciousness, these principals are the light on the other side of the limited imagination we have been mistaking for sky.
We must dream bigger.
It's go time and we all have an invitation to participate - anything less than a new imagining of our future won't be big enough.