On my first visit to Occupy Wall Street, two weeks ago (but it might as well be years, given how rapidly the movement is growing and changing), I sat in on a meeting of the Media Committee. A paper was being passed around, and we were asked to provide email addresses, a list of our skills and the equipment we owned that could be put into service. Of the 35 or so people at the meeting, I informally counted 12 filmmakers, six or seven editors, three video artists, a couple of sound engineers and a director of commercials. The average age was around thirty, and the debate about software, platforms and compatibility was fierce. I dutifully wrote down ‘theatre director’ and listed as skills… um… good communicator? knowledgable about space? strong familiarity with the plays and essays of Brecht?
I got the message: these people weren’t fooling around. Unless I had some real skills to offer or a laptop fitted with Finalcut Pro, an animation program and a good sound card – well, maybe I’d better slink away and try the Library Committee, or the Arts and Culture Committee. Elsewhere, a participant in the Madrid indignados protest was explaining, with the help of a translator, the group’s organisational structure and history. Ten or so members of the Information Committee thought of drawing up a daily schedule, and maybe a map of Zuccotti Park. The lone member of the Finance Committee was wandering around trying to collect receipts.
Now that each day’s events make headlines, and Naomi Klein and Slavoj Žižek come to speak (not to mention the visit from Penn Badgley of TV’s Gossip Girl), it’s hard to convey how thrillingly tenuous it seemed. There was only one stressed out member of the Comfort Committee, in charge of making sure that everyone had a sleeping bag and a corner of the park to call home, and she pleaded for both help and patience at that evening’s General Assembly. The library had a few dozen books; now it has thousands, and its own barcoded lending system, and a blog, and reading groups, and a children’s section. The first big announcement that evening was that a local resident had offered use of her shower (women only, sorry) for two hours a day. Sign-up sheets would be distributed in the morning. The second big announcement was that SEIU 1199, a union with more than 300,000 members, was joining the movement.
A lot has been written about the protesters’ decision not to confine themselves to a single, sound-bite friendly political goal. But this is a strength, not a failing. What’s happening in Zuccotti Park is the opening of a great sphere of political possibility. The festival mood won’t last forever, maybe only until the second or third seriously cold night. But the festival mood is beside the point. As Žižek said on Sunday to a crowd of 400: ‘Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire.’ The left in the US has been suspended in a state of repressed political desire, full of imagination, ideas and longings, but crushed by an overwhelming sense of futility. We’ve been resentfully ‘realistic’, following the measured and maddeningly ineffective president we worked hard to elect. The electrifying momentum of OWS reminds us that a lot more is possible than we’ve been led to believe.