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Occupy Wall Street: Bending the Arc

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After ignoring Occupy Wall Street in its early days, last week the New York Times saw fit to print a front-page story identifying anger as the defining feature of the protests. My experiences at Zuccotti Park suggest otherwise. Yes, there is anger at injustice, and rightly so. But that is far from the predominant emotion or unifying force.

On October 6, when thousands met at Foley Square to support OWS, I went with an octogenarian friend who lives on Park Avenue, a prosperous lawyer motivated by love of this country and a passionate wish for a more perfect union. The crowd we met was energized, resolute, and extraordinarily diverse - assorted ages, colors, and classes marching in step - unified by at least these two convictions: that current levels of economic inequality are unjust and unjustifiable; and that corporate money has corrupted our politics. In addition to union members, students, and activists, there were many demonstrating for the first time, mothers with babies, a father with a boy on his shoulders, a young woman with a sign saying, "I am the 1%. I stand with the 99%. Tax me more."

Similarly, last Friday thousands of people rose before the sun to defend OWS against eviction by the NYPD, ostensibly to clean Zuccotti Park, widely understood as a pretext to end the occupation. By six am, the dimly lit park was packed, people atop the perimeter with cameras, police on all sides. As more supporters streamed in and space became cramped, the level of civility was remarkable, everyone eager to make room, mindful not to trample the flowers.

At the same time, given the protesters' familiarity with police batons and pepper spray, there was a palpable expectation of the possibly violent use of force. The phone number of the National Lawyer's Guild, repeated in unison with human amplification, was written on hands and forearms in case of arrest. Everyone was prepared to lock arms and, peacefully, try to hold the park. People were unified - not by anger - but by a robust sense of solidarity, a determination to stand together for a more democratic world.

According to the Times article, "While the protesters seem united in feeling that the system is stacked against them, with the rules written to benefit the rich and the connected, they are also just as often angry about issues closer to home, like education and the local environment."

Along with cherry-picked details to highlight less sophisticated aspects of the protesters, the implication of inconsistency is misleading. In fact, the sorry state of education is stark evidence that the system is indeed stacked against ordinary Americans - who cannot afford private school, so must send their children to overcrowded, underfunded, often dilapidated public schools; who cannot afford college tuition, so graduate, if at all, with oppressive debt and bleak job prospects. Likewise, the perilous state of the environment reflects corporate freedom to pursue profit at the expense of human and planetary health.

After the tremendous cheer at the announcement that they would remain in the park for now, I came upon Charlie, writing for the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a flower tucked above one ear, pen and pad in hand, camera around his neck. Like many, he was greatly relieved, having dreaded confrontation with police. "My sword is my camera," he said. He was interviewing Bryant Bailey, a marine who served in Afghanistan in 2002, now working in IT. "I have two degrees and a job, and I still can't pay my bills. But we've shown today that when people unify, we can move mountains."

Such sentiments are pervasive. At Zuccotti Park you see people discovering the joyful power of community, the transformative force of transcending our individual interests and finding our collective will. It is a striking contrast to the increasingly isolated struggle for survival that dominates far too many people's days, in which life has become nastier, more brutish, and - for the growing ranks of the poor - several years shorter.

You see a renaissance of empathy, thousands speaking in one voice, and listening, with equal attention, to one voice. They make decisions in a General Assembly operated by consensus, driven by the painstaking determination that everyone have a say, an arresting and deliberate contrast to the disproportionate influence of the elite few in our society, while the 99% are unheard in the halls of power.

You see anger too, and it's about time. As former Congressman Alan Grayson explained recently, "Wall Street wrecked the economy three years ago and nobody's held responsible for that. Not a single person's been indicted or convicted for destroying twenty percent of our national net worth accumulated over two centuries. They're upset about the fact that Wall Street has iron control over the economic policies of this country, and that one party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street, and the other party caters to them as well."

As the majority at OWS seems intuitively to understand, anger may send some people to the streets, but it will not sustain us on the long journey to bend the arc of the moral universe more toward justice. For that we need discipline, stamina, and, above all, empathy.

Forty-three percent of Americans living in or near poverty -- while the top one percent own forty-percent of the nation's wealth -- reveals a deficit of empathy more devastating than any budget deficit. The assault on Social Security, disregard for public education, privatization of public services - all show a society that has lost its sense of social responsibility. The result is individualism run amok, which is taking a devastating toll on the 99%, who are, as Paul Krugman put it, "free to die".

During the Great Depression, the last time we faced a comparable crisis, "the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live," observe Theodore Marmor and Jeffrey Mashaw, both professors at Yale. "In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other -- not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become 'entitlements,' a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being."

The language of common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.

Occupy Wall Street is a challenge to this mentality, a call for a renewal of the social compact, a restoration of our sense of social responsibility. I worry that in the absence of specific demands - for a tax on financial transactions, for example, or public campaign financing - the movement may lose the chance to change public policy, but it has already begun to change public discourse and create political possibility.

That said, its success, indeed its very survival, will depend on whether it can overcome a daunting array of difficulties - from internal disagreement and lack of organizational infrastructure to eviction and winter weather, to name just a few.

So if you believe the 99% deserve a real democracy rather than a society run by and for the top 1%, lend a hand. If you have suggestions, share them with the occupiers. Help shape the movement; let's harness its energy to influence the 2012 elections. You can provide support and join "working groups" from your living room. If you can, come and join the conversation in person: Look past the ragtag appearances and occasional oddball, and you'll see courageous citizens struggling to reclaim our democracy. Paraphrasing Gandhi: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then - with perseverance and luck - you may win.