From Wall Street to Elm Street, quickly

by Eric Ginsburg

Nearly 50 people huddled in a dimly lit circle between Green Street and the government plaza, some underdressed for one of the first cool nights of the season. Not to worry — someone brought extra blankets to share with the unusual assembly of strangers gathering on a Friday night.

They came from Thomasville with their kids, from at least five college campuses and countless neighborhoods. They’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street movement — some of them for less than a day and many since it began.

In the last week, Occupy Wall Street in New York City has erupted onto the international scene after unprovoked police attacks, 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, everincreasing union support and high-profile celebrity endorsements.

Their message is clear: The system is broken, and the 99 percent of people in the country will no longer allow the other 1 percent to rule us. The target is what author Chris Hedges aptly described as “the criminal class on Wall Street,” and now satellite occupations are being planned in cities nationwide including six in North Carolina.

The Occupy Greensboro general assembly began with introductions, and people cited a wide range of reasons for attending, most of which boiled down to a direct economic need and being fed up with the status quo.

Throughout the meeting it became increasingly clear that everyone didn’t share the same vision for the future, or even for a local occupation as attendees tried to navigate the tension between a pressing desire for action and the indispensable need to coordinate and orga nize strategically. Carefully and inclusively, the meeting was (sometimes painfully) slow.

After more than an hour and a half, people began leaving and the frustration boiled over. One of the meeting organizers blurted out that nothing had been accomplished and that if the revolution in Egypt was spontaneous, Greensboro’s should be too.

Other attendees were quick to point out, and rightly so, that while nobody knew how widespread Arab Spring would become, it was anything but spontaneous. The organizers were well trained in Gene Sharp’s theories of nonviolent resistance and significant planning went into preparing for the events that unfolded on a world stage.

Similar mythology exists in our own history. Rosa Parks wasn’t just too tired to give up her seat — she trained at the Highlander Research and Education Center and was an active NAACP member. Even the Occupy Wall Street planners met for months beforehand and continue to spend long hours in general assembly meetings hammering out details.

In the end, the meeting drew to a close with attendees planning to meet again in two days with the intention of figuring out enough details for an occupation to begin.

The media is struggling to discern what the occupiers’ goals are, with the New York Times calling them “ideologically vague and strategically baffling.” Bloggers and columnists have said they’re unfocused hippies. While every participant might not be able to summarize their grievances into a sound bite, it’s easy to understand why the occupations have such widespread appeal. Only a few people are benefiting from the status quo, and as the Occupy Wall Street declaration points out, there is an endless list of ways corporations and the 1 percent benefit from everyone else’s suffering.

Everyone who decided to spend their Friday night bundled up and discussing working groups and ground rules was there because they are frustrated and believe in a better future through collective action.

They may not have all the answers, but we shouldn’t expect them to. In fact, we should be more worried about pundits with quick fixes to deeply entrenched inequalities and our broken economic and political systems than about the thousands of people who are humble enough not to claim they have the solution and are aware enough to know that action is necessary.

Many of the occupiers in New York and their counterparts locally are new to organizing, but they are standing on strong foundations. Their chant of “We are the 99 percent” or banners reading “We the people” are just the current incarnations of the older slogan ,“All power to the people.”

They do not represent 99 percent of the country — they only represent themselves — but their membership in “the 99” and belief in taking action is likely their only defining characteristic. Here, they came from throughout the city and region, from a plethora of backgrounds and identities, which is their strength.

On Oct. 14 I’ll be in the Big Apple for my uncles’ wedding and will stop by to see it for myself. Around the same time, dozens of Elon University students will spend their fall break participating in the Wall Street occupation, and the Triad efforts will likely be in full swing.

The movement is in its infancy, but has already shown considerable promise. There are plenty of things Occupy Wall Street could do differently, but they are inviting us to bring our ideas and participate. They must be taken seriously. After all, most of us are experiencing various forms of disempowerment and disenfranchisement — we are part of the 99 percent too.