Anyone who participates in a protest like the various Occupy movements is being changed forever. The sense of empowerment is overwhelming.
My own experience with this phenomenon happened in 1968, when I graduated from UCLA with a Masters degree in Journalism. I applied for a job reading the news at ABC and was told with no shame: "We don't hire women." Just two years later, ABC hired a woman to co-host the nightly news, and since then no newscast has been complete without a woman. (A young woman, usually. We still haven't yet won the right for older women to read the news!)
So what happened between 1968 and 1970?
A lot of women got really angry and channeled that anger into active protest. I was lucky to be part of that effort; and I've never forgotten the fact that a few pissed-off people, in a very short span of time, succeeded in opening doors in the face of tremendous opposition. And that in spite of many efforts over the following decades, those doors have not been locked again since.
It was thrilling to discover our power. Millions of women, anti-war protestors, people of color, gays, environmental activists and disabled folks had the same amazing epiphany: it is possible to change the world. Maybe not perfectly, but definitively. And none of us has ever forgotten that psychologically transformative experience.
But for decades, this awareness has been blunted. Over and over again during the 80s, 90s and even into the anti-Iraq war era, I heard Americans say that "It's not the same now. Protests are so 1960s. They won't work in the 21st century." Anger itself became taboo, and most of the 99 percent accepted their supposed powerlessness, relaxed and allowed themselves to be comforted by mass distractions and the fairy tale of trickle-down goodies.
While Americans remained mostly passive even in the face of an illegal war and financial crimes against the populace, people in the Middle East discovered their own power. The Arab Spring has now re-inspired discouraged and increasingly-screwed Americans to remember their own American revolution. A few brave, outraged folks can indeed effectively change the world.
Each generation and movement invents its own tactics, and these often puzzle the mainstream media. Few 1960s and 70s journalists seemed to understand how a bunch of women sitting around in consciousness-raising groups talking about housework could create a revolution. Or how non-violent "sit-ins" could end a war or integrate a diner.
For those of us who participated in these earlier events, the last few weeks' videos of nonviolent protestors being pepper-sprayed and bludgeoned resonate in our very bones. And the sight of the press scratching its collective head trying to understand "Who are your leaders?" and "What do you want?" brings a sense of deja vu. We watch with amusement the media's frantic efforts to understand why seemingly silly hand signals and consensus "general assemblies" could be radical tools of social transformation. I'm sure OWS protestors feel, just as we did, "You just don't get it, do you?"
Consciousness is a mysterious thing. When a critical mass of awareness and indignation is reached, it shifts like wildfire from place to place, person to person, igniting a sense of agency that is unstoppable by even the most well-armored resistance.
Like many other veterans of earlier protests, I watch with envy and pride as a new generation discovers the extraordinary transformative power of its hearts and minds. This is a kind of energy that cannot be stopped or put back in the bottle. And once you've experienced it, you never forget.