An Attempt to Explain Occupy – in Six Words.

As mentioned a while ago, I’ve been working with the newspaper group at Occupy DC. I haven’t written much about it, I think I’ve been letting the experience gestate before trying to comment.

Curiosity, in theory a typical journalistic trait, first brought me down there. Since then, a lot of people have asked me to explain it. I’ve tried a lot of explanations on different people, but I seem to always run up against some sort of wall. So in a final attempt, I’ll try to describe it in more familiar vocabulary.

Occupy is networking. For poor people.

Ok, maybe its not just poor people. It’s the poor and others who are generally disenfranchised. But that’s not as snappy a phrase, so I’ll just stick with the one above. 🙂

I hope, for example, this analogy goes some way to explaining why there’s no “list of demands.” After all, when was the last time you went to a networking happy hour that resulted in a list of demands? Right. Never. You come away with new contacts, new ideas, new plans for future projects.

Occupy Congress protesters gather for the general assembly outside the Capitol on Jan. 17

No one thinks its weird for people to physically gather to discuss everything from advertising to entomology. The professional and academic worlds have long understood the importance of face to face contacts. But when people gather to discuss and express their dissatisfaction with our country’s (and world’s) economic order the response is, “Yeah, but what are they doing?” or “But can’t they organize over facebook?” And I strain to suppress an eye roll.

Also, consider the “lack of focus” criticism still (still!?!) being bandied about. Let’s say you’ve got an archeology conference going on; people are going to be presenting papers, and moderating panel discussions on widely divergent topics within that field. Can you imagine someone asking of an academic conference: “Yeah, but what’s the one, main, you know, point?” Right. It would be absurd. Similarly, people are going to come away from Occupy and move on in all directions – on everything from sustainable agriculture to student debt forgiveness to national health care – and that’s totally acceptable.

Occupy Congress on Tuesday was a perfect example of networking for me personally. It was a relatively small affair, no crowds of thousands. But in the course of the day’s interviews I made more contacts with potential writers, sources, and other interested journalistic parties than I had since I started helping out at the OWT. Sure, people rallied in front of the capital, and there were signs and flags. But the inward-focused actions (what was being done for people within the movement) were possibly more important than the outward-focused actions (what’s done for the sake of TV cameras). That may be why the media (who rarely spend as much time around Occupy as I do, which isn’t very much as it is) get it wrong.

Of course it’s not quite like a networking event as we usually imagine it, but those differences come down to the simple question of economic resources.

First, they don’t usually happen in a public park. But that’s because dentist’s associations have the money for a conference space. And what happened when Occupy Wall Street got money? They got office space. Because a place for physical gathering is important. Just as it is for any other group of people who share concerns they want to act on.

Second, your typical conference event lasts only a few days. Of course continual occupation is an end in itself; to be visible, to raise awareness, to keep the idea in the public’s mind. But it’s also important as a way to maintain a consistent hub of communication and contact. During the rest of the year, a professional association for example, has an infrastructure to rely on, where communications, the exchange of ideas, the implementation of programs is carried on, when the conference is over. So far, most Occupies just have their parks.

Third (and on a slightly different tack), your typical networking event doesn’t include some of the more discomfort-producing attendees that Occupies can – the local homeless population, the occasional person who seems a bit “disturbed.” And that’s because, unlike your typical professional group, Occupy isn’t exclusive.  It’s an atmosphere that refuses to shy away from the uncomfortable realities of modern life (homeless, mentally ill, etc…) because there is no mechanism within an occupation by which to do so.  This also speaks to my frustration when people ask me “Oh, are you one of them?” because there is no “them.” There’s no entry exam, there’s no professional requirement, there are no dues, there is no membership card, there’s no oath of loyalty, there’s no one telling you what to do or how to do it. There’s just you. Making what you want to make of it. That’s really it.

So there it is. Occupying is networking for the rest of us. I don’t physically occupy (I think I’d be dead of pneumonia by now if I did) but the network that is building up around the square, which I have been plugging into via reporting activities, is similar to that which any shiny, new, young professional or academic might plug into at the beginning of a career.

So my plea is this, that the next time you ask, or someone you know asks – “But what have they really done?” take a moment to look at your contacts database – your personal “rolodex” of professional contacts. Think about how long that took to build, how much work went into compiling it (I bet it was longer than the four months Occupy has been around) and start appreciating the work that’s being done, and which is only just beginning.

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