“What is our one demand?” ~Jack Johnson


You might not remember it, but in the flyers for the September 17th Occupation, a lithe dancer twirled atop the Merrill Lynch Bull asking that single question, what is our one demand?

For nearly two weeks now, if the media paid any attention to the Wall Street protests, it was to note the number of arrests, possibly clear their throats about the violence of the police tactics or dismissively discuss the protests as aesthetically unappealing (who knew it was a fashion show?) or lacking in concrete demands. Towards this end, the occupiers have posted a declaration that is not unlike our own Declaration of Independence with its list of extended grievances, but, despite prodding by a press corps feverish for a simple sound byte, the occupiers have yet to deliver a list of demands, much less their one demand.

The grievances are interesting in this regard. They center on a system that perpetuates injustice, and, in fact, must rely on injustice to exist:

“They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
They have sold our privacy as a commodity.”

These are not all the grievances, but sufficient to give you the idea. The laundry list is long and it doesn’t take much to imagine that their list of demands will be equally long. Ideas I have heard floated include a Financial Speculation Tax, a re-enactment of Glass Steagall, a repeal of the 1986 Tax Reform Act under Reagan with its deeply regressive rate cuts. There were also more idealistic goals: free undergraduate education as a human right. Healthcare as a human right. Retirement pensions as a human right. In fact, one person suggested passing FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, a magnificent document that never made it to congress after his death.

These complaints and remedies really have a single thread: unchecked corporate power over nearly every aspect of our lives. From what we eat, to the security of our homes, to the value of our schools, to the operation of our government. The complaint more specifically is that corporations are given the rights of humans with neither the responsibility to the community nor the vulnerability of a human. This odd entity that we call a ‘corporation’ is neither a human nor a business, exactly, but some strange and monstrous amalgam, legally human, but superhumanly wealthy and powerful and geographically multifarious; potentially omnipresent. A marvelous scene from Eugene O’Neil’s “The Hairy Ape” conveys the sense of anguish when struggling (usually futilely) against such a beast—the steam engine stoker, a grim, dirty, muscle man named simply Yank has finally had enough and comes out swinging, desperate to find some escape from his hellish existence in the bowels of the ship, shoveling coal. Who do I fight? He wants to know, who do I hit? Of course, in the system in which he is caught, in which we are caught, there is no one person to hit, to fight, really. What’s worse for Yank, the very act of lashing out condemns him culturally, earning him the stigmatizing and dehumanizing label of a ‘Hairy Ape’; thus are refinements doled, and the keepers of the jailhouse ensure their sense of superiority by suggesting those who struggle are somehow already debased.

Is it so much different today?

The antidote for this of course is to insist on our own humanity. This might strike some as a tautology, but for the people occupying Wall Street it is the thing without which nothing else matters. That’s why the demands are really a secondary consideration, the essential thing is the community which establishes the demands, the humanizing process that will allow the explication of those demands. They use the slow and sometimes painful process of consensus building: recognizing and insisting on equal input and validation. They rely on individual committees to come forward with recommendations that are voted on in the General Assembly held in the late morning or early afternoon. The selection of grievances above was voted on by the September 29th General Assembly of New York City in Liberty Square. This is true Democracy in action, and their insistence on such speaks more about their motives and their ultimate desires than any list of reform ‘demands’ they might offer. They understand, too, that part of their mission is to become the type of society they’d like to live in. Many who have visited Liberty Plaza have felt inspired by what they’ve seen:

“I have spent the last two days at the Occupy Wall Street gathering. It was a beautiful display of peaceful action: so much kindness and gentleness in the camp, so much belief in our world and democracy…. It is a thing of beauty to see so many people in love with the ideal of democracy, so alive with its promise, so committed to its continuity in the face of crony capitalism and corporate rule.” ~ Mark Ruffalo

As Plutocracy Files, a DailyKos blogger who made a visit to Liberty Square and wrote a diary about her experience put it:
“When I heard her say everyone was welcome and, very specifically, that the homeless were welcome, I realized something: In small, growing clusters throughout the country and, indeed, around the world, these words [from the Statue of Liberty] are no longer an embarrassing farce:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
(Emma Lazarus)

Right now – because of this ragtag group of kids – these words are not just a shameful reminder of our hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy. The Occupy Wall Street movement is indeed a “community unto itself” that is showing us that it’s possible to live up to our highest ideals. We are not fated to live in a cruel and ruthless society.”

Maybe their idea of consensus building and community is, in fact, a kind of demand, or not so much a demand as a model of behavior, presenting to the world the vision of the community they’d like to see. This makes sense and walks back the implicit hierarchical vision of ‘demanding’ from a powerful other either money or power or respect. It is, in some ways, the perfect answer to the abstraction of money that commodifies relationships and objectifies humans.

Their project insists that we can, and must, reclaim our humanity.

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7 responses

  1. Great article. I wish that I could in someway be apart of this movement.

    ~J

  2. Anthony Dee Varrone | Reply

    I’ve read it twice now. Posted a good opinion on Facebook. Well done!

  3. AdBusters != “a ragtag group of kids.”

  4. Lowgenius, I think the “ragtag group of kids” bit was meant tongue-in-cheek, as that’s the portrayal much of mainstream media is trying to give OWS.

    To the author of this post, THANK YOU for this eloquent, insightful, beautiful gift. When I was telling my mother about OWS, she asked, “So what do they want?” and I had a hard time answering. I knew, or believed, everything said in this post, but I had trouble putting it into words. You have done that for me, and I will be sharing this liberally. Again, thank you.

    1. Thanks, Jan. I’m glad it helped, and hope you will visit often!

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