Occupied: Notes from the street
Occupy New York: October/November 2011
Standing around the perimeter of Zuccotti Park were people holding hand-lettered signs. Some stood silent; others spoke with people passing by. Signs included the political (“Too Big to Fail is Too Big to Allow”), the literary (Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself”) and the personal (“56-year old unemployed seamstress knitting for OWS”). Zuccotti Park was all at once a political demonstration, a Speakers’ Corner, a sit-in and a crowded miniature neighborhood. The “Good Neighbor Policy” (“…abusive and disrespectful language will not be tolerated”) represented one of many messages distinguishing OWS from its 1960’s predecessors.
When I identified myself as a psychologist at the Information Tent or the Medical Tent, there was always someone eager to discuss the community’s mental health concerns. Like the movement itself, the needs of the community were evolving day-to-day. Two weeks into the occupation, “Support Group” volunteers had signed up to patrol the park, check in with point people, and talk to those who seemed depressed, anxious, or panicky. This inclusive group welcomed both volunteers who did not fall into the “healer-victim” model of mental health service as well as traditionally trained professionals like me! Talk of setting up a “quiet tent” began and Trinity Church offered daytime quiet space.
Not long after, a young nurse from the “Medical Group” told me that the problem of “schizophrenics, and addicts who have begun to show up” were #1 on his problem list. At a “Support Group” meeting, I witnessed a moving discussion about this problem. In attendance were occupiers, volunteers and representatives from NY City Departments for Homeless Services. The meeting was long, and the language respectful: One occupier described how “it is natural for the vulnerable of society to gravitate to our community” and urged all to find ways to help without forcing them to leave. Many of these young occupiers embraced “the 99%” in ways that were, to me, inspiring. (On one visit, I saw a number of presumably untrained folks speak compassionately with an agitated individual and calm him down.) A referral system was begun that night but the problem of those who didn’t want to accept such services remained.
Purposefully decentralized, the movement included at least 82 working groups. The “Empathy and Mediation” group offered a place to share emotional experience and discuss non-violent resistance. The “Security” group was essential in dealing with the considerable anxiety generated by incidences of sexual assault and harassment. Volunteers from PNS (Physicians for National Health) offered supervision to the “Medical” group and organized 99 doctors to administer “Flu Shots for the 99%.”
As we began to establish a forum for the volunteers to address the frustration/burn-out that was setting in, the encampment was forcibly ended. Organizing and meeting continues, but mental health work for the community is on hold — for now!
Occupy New York: September 2011
About a week or two after OWS began in Zuccotti Park, my wife and I decided to take the # 1 train to lower Manhattan to see for ourselves what this group of “occupiers” was like and what they wanted. What we found was a small, enthusiastic band of diverse, mostly young, people with cardboard signs and strong voices speaking about the many injustices they and others are faced with.
For us it was like a time warp into the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when we were involved in “movements” that made a difference. Now, 40-60 years later, we were feeling hopeless that there would ever be a time in the US when another historically important social justice movement would develop to address the suffering of many.
What we have seen since September has given us some small degree of hope. So, we tried to do something to help. We delivered food and clothing to the occupiers. We went to 3 events associated with the “occupation”. We walked in a Health Care march up Broadway. It was exhilarating to be part of a group of young and old health care professionals marching together in the streets of Manhattan chanting slogans that made sense to all of us.
We also attended one of the “general assemblies” at Washington Square Park where we were first exposed to the “open mic” process. Instead of listening to charismatic speakers from a distance, the experience of being in a group where we repeated what others said made us feel like participants rather than followers. It gave us a natural high. But the most inspiring OWS event for us was when we marched with hundreds of like-minded New Yorkers down Broadway from 96th Street to Columbus Circle (October 21, 2011). Part of the way we were joined by 92 year old Pete Seeger, who walked along with us with the help of his two canes and friends, all of us singing his peace songs from the 1950s and 1960s.
I am now devoting some of my time trying to take the OWS movement to my students, so they will see how important it is for them to “occupy” psychology, for their benefit and for those vulnerable people they will be serving. I want them to see that this is another road to ethical practice.
Occupy Philadelphia: October 2011
I loved Occupy Wall Street the moment I read those three words on the CNN crawl. Hadn’t Michael Moore ended Capitalism: A Love Story by putting crime scene tape around Goldman Sachs? It seemed that someone had finally summoned the precise rubric needed to call our collective outrage to action.
I was itching to leave Philadelphia for Zuccotti Park when, on October 6th, Occupy Philly burst on the scene. We had one advantage over NYC: Our encampment was at City Hall — smack in the center of town. People came to check it out in part because they couldn’t avoid it. Many stayed for the teachins — from the history of the New Deal and civil rights to the non-violent strategies of Ghandi and Dr. King, and lectures on anarchism and socialism.
Newspapers ignored us for a few days, then realized they couldn’t. There was no doubt this was part of a democratic awakening. You know your movement is inclusive when homeless people and Warren Buffett agree: This movement is what the 99% need. The strongest criticism of the Occupy movement has been about our “fuzzy demands” or “inconsistency of message.” As someone raised Catholic, I have to laugh. We have a majority party in Congress that loves Jesus but hates poor people. And Occupy is “inconsistent?!” We need an ongoing period of reflection, of course, but that’s a hard sell in a culture that invented the sound-bite and behavior therapy.
As the Lacanian psychoanalyst, Slavoj Zizek, said in a speech at Zuccotti park: The movement may be without specific demands, but it’s not without content.
Here are some small things we did at Occupy Philly before we were dispersed by police at the end of November:
Held a massive campaign to support a Constitutional Amendment (recently introduced by Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland) that will overturn “Citizens United” to outlaw corporate spending in elections.
Joined “Move your Money Day” to take money out of the mega-banks and into small banks and credit unions. (This hurts them more than you would imagine.)
Started “Occupy Vacant Lots,” which involves clearing lots in which we — rich, poor, homeless — can start collective gardening in spring.
Even if nothing more were to happen, the movement has already been a success by changing the national conversation. Almost no one but Senator Bernie Sanders was talking about how the 1% owns more than the bottom 99% before this movement broke out. Now one hears it everywhere. Will the candidates try to co-opt it? Let them. Let it become an ordinary thing for citizens to ask candidates: What have you done for the poor and homeless lately?
Anyone wondering how this all got started should check out the article by Mattathias Schwartz (“Pre-Occupied”) in the New Yorker, November 28, 2011, p. 28. This is not to be confused with a later New Yorker article that was not as good.
Come to Philadelphia in July (date TBA) for a general meeting of all Occupy groups. We need more psychoanalysts!
Occupy Washington, DC: December 2011
On this, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, I am participating in “October 2011,” Washington’s parallel to the Occupy movement. “October 2011” is a coalition of political groups, among them Code Pink and Veterans for Peace. Like a form of political tinnitus the chants that I and several hundred others are singing out over Washington ring in my head: “We are the 99%. You are the 99%.” “This is what democracy looks like.” “When Drones Fly Children Die.” This last accompanies our march to the National Air and Space Museum which is about to launch an exhibit of drones. A critical moment occurs as hundreds of us prepare to march on the museum. One of the organizers announces that anyone willing to be arrested should meet with her prior to our starting out. I wonder if I am willing to be arrested and determine that I am not. My justification is that I have an obligation to my patients; I am not willing to incur the time or expense that would be involved in making such a statement. It’s a choice, a difficult one.