Occupy the Future

I had a few hours to kill between landing in DC for APHA’s Annual Meeting and the dinner that the IH section leadership organizes each year.  I normally relish free to time wander, sightsee and explore – indeed, the last time I was in DC, I walked seven miles in one afternoon to see ALL the national monuments – but this year’s nasty weather quickly put the kabosh on that.

So instead, I decided to put on walking shoes that were not warm enough and walk down to McPherson square to check out Occupy DC.

By the time I got to the tent-packed square, it had been raining for several hours.  Cardboard signs with streaked ink and professionally printed banners surrounded many of the tents.  “Fairness ≠ Warfare.” “We are fed up!” “Fight the Power.”  “Spread love, not fear.” I noticed a small group of people listening to one of the organizers, so I hovered behind them to eavesdrop: he was encouraging them to join the group for some upcoming marches.  Meanwhile, volunteers in the makeshift kitchen were helping to haul in donations of soy milk and cereal brought in by one generous supporter.

As soon as they caught sight of me, they whirled around.  “Oh my goodness, you must be freezing!” said one of them as she caught sight of my shoes.  I grinned.  “Would you like an umbrella?”
“Sure. Are you guys from around here?”
“Yeah, we are freshman from College Park. What about you?”
“I am actually here for a conference. I’m from Texas.”
Gasps. “Really? Ohmygod, don’t you love it? Isn’t this wonderful?”
We chatted for a bit about the movement in different parts of the country, then I dashed across the street to a nearby Starbucks – which, incidentally, was also somewhat “occupied” by protesters – to get warm.  I took the only empty seat available and opened my laptop to work through this week’s Devex vacancy newsletter.

Two people on my left were arguing about the camp’s management.  The woman, a hair stylist from Denver, was emphasizing the importance of communal welfare to keep the occupiers warm.  “I mean, we need to get organized and get blankets and make sure that everyone has tarps.  Otherwise, people are going to die, and then the protest won’t matter.  I mean, look at this weather!”

“Reminds me of monsoon season,” replied a woman across from us.  “In Asia, they get regular heavy rains every year.”
“Where are you from?”
“Really!” I exclaimed. “What year did you come here?”
“1996. It’s kinda funny, actually – my parents came here to escape oppression, and now I protesting oppression here in America. My parents don’t get it – they’re like, ‘Why are you protesting? You’re free!’ and I’m like, ‘Not really.'”
“There’s oppression where you come from?” asked another one.
“Yeah. Burma has the world’s longest-running civil war,” she explained.

The guy to my right, a relaxed-looking black man watching a movie on his smart phone, glanced over my shoulder.  “I’m looking for work,” I offered.
“International Medical Corps? You a doctor or nurse or something?”
“No, I’m a public health professional.”
He chuckled. “Professional, huh?”
I laughed. “Well, there’s not exactly a good word for my job description, so I just go with that.” I told him about my work coordinating public health surveillance projects.  He was looking for work, too – a friend of his got him a single-person tent in the square as a temporary living arrangement while he networked and applied for jobs.

The “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement has spread like wildfire across countries and continents and has seen everything from one-man marches to riots and clashes with police.  Yet it has no clear message, goal, or spokesperson – a fact that has analysts scrambling to explain it and pundits whining that they are wasting everyone’s time.

They are missing the point.  As some have begun to point out, OWS is not your mama’s protest movement.  They are not fighting for rights or reform, but recognition.  They are simply saying, “We are here.”

If Occupy Wall Street resembles any movement in recent American history, it would actually be the new women’s movement of the 1970s. …Although the leaders of the new women’s movement had policies they wanted on the agenda, their foremost demand was for recognition of, and credit for, the gendered reality of everyday life. Likewise, when the Occupy Wall Street activists attack Wall Street, it is not capitalism as such they are targeting, but a system of economic relations that has lost its way and failed to serve the public.

Some, like the walk organizers, are there because they are truly invested in pushing for social change; others, like the college freshman, are enthralled by the atmosphere and the energy. Some view it as their struggle to survive, while others are taking advantage of the opportunities it provides.  What right do we have to criticize them?  Do we not also see the same themes in the Tea Party?  Or among members of APHA?

Tom Murphy writes on his blog “A View from the Cave” that he believes that storytelling will change the landscape of international aid and development.  In global health we are bombarded by images of poverty and despair that, while compelling us to action, reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate ignorance.  This needs to be changed, he argues, by taking time to listen to people’s stories and responding in ways that suit their needs, not ours.  Not every woman from the Congo or in Dadaab has been raped by rogue soldiers and abandoned by her husband; not every South African township dweller has HIV; not every girl in Yemen is a child bride.  Not every OWS protester is an unemployed college graduate.  Each one has his or her own story to tell, and it our job first and foremost to listen before we leap up to help them.  This is the future of social change.

Don’t get caught up in what past movements looked like.  Tell your own story.  Occupy the future.

3 thoughts on “Occupy the Future

  1. Great post Jessica. I’m visiting the Square in the predawn hour today and am impressed with the organization and the energy. Don’t forget this is “move your money” week–time to switch to a credit union!

  2. I enjoyed the article… I too am in DC for APHA and got a chance to be a part of the Sallie Mae student protest. Small world. Ps don’t try the bbq here – it ain’t like home.


  3. Thanks for the shout out! I could not agree more. What is most interesting about this movement is that people have been able to tell their own stories through the pictures of them holding up their own narrative. It would be wonderful for more stories to be accessed of those who are there.

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