Friday, October 28, 2011

Why I went to Wall Street

For the past month my attention has been divided between Guatemala and the occupy movement in the U.S., most notably in my home town of New York. Of course, we know that this wave of protests and public actions did not START in New York. There were militant protests in Europe, in Egypt, in Latin America, and the people of the U.S. have joined that wave of discontent. And yet the importance of this specific round of actions cannot be minimized. It does represent, I think, something new. Exactly what that new thing is, is still very much in process.

So, I have been watching this at a distance, more intently after the first two weeks. It seemed as though everyone I knew in New York was occupying -- if not sleeping in Zuccotti Park, then participating in other ways. Some of my friends have visited nearly every day since it started. Some are participating in the multiple working groups that have been established, or make a point of attending the nightly General Assemblies, which are where the working groups report in, anyone who wants to can raise a concern, and strategic decisions get made by consensus of whomever is participating. Others have come only for the larger marches and support actions.

Friends in other places --Philadelphia, Colorado -- have also thrown themselves into this. And so I'd begun checking in several times a day, mostly via Facebook and email (as so many of my friends are involved and they post pretty regularly) and looking at the Occupy Wall Street website, and also looking at what the media coverage has been. I was in Guatemala during the so-called Arab spring. I watched Tahrir Square unfold via CNN, Al Jazeera and various web-based sources; it started shortly after I arrived here in January. I have watched the other protest movements over the past several months. But this one was in my home town -- I was not born in New York but I have lived there for nearly 35 years, longer than all of the other places I have lived put together. And so I started to feel as though I should try and get there.

About a month ago, I had made plans (although fortunately that did not include purchasing plane tickets) to go to New Orleans for the weekend of October 22 and 23 for the 50th birthday of a friend whom I haven't seen since 2009. It was an extravagance but I told myself he wasn't going to turn 50 again, and it would be worth it. He and his wife had moved since I was there last, into a new apartment, and although we have only met face to face a handful of times (they were Katrina refugees who befriended my daughter in 2005), I consider them (and him especially) very dear friends, and he seemed so happy when I suggested that I might come, that I decided the hell with everything, I was going to go. After all, I told myself, it's only money. 

Unfortunately, my friend had to cancel his celebration, and thankfully he let me know before I had purchased a plane ticket. So, I made a split second decision. Since I had already mentally put aside the money for the plane ticket to New Orleans, I would use it to go to New York.  I consulted with some friends who have been active in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) to see if they thought it might still be going on when I returned in January. The weather, of course, would be much colder. They all said yes, but I still thought it was important to go now, while the weather was somewhat warmer, and before there might be any large-scale police reprisal.

I felt as though I needed to go not because my presence would make any huge difference, and not because I thought going would change my life. But it seemed as though this was a unique and significant thing --a historic rupture, one of my friends described it, an opening in the surface of politics as we have known them. It seemed important to be there, since one of the things that seemed so important was the reclaiming of the commons, as Joel Kovel put it when I ran into him on Wednesday evening as I was getting ready to leave OWS and head back to Brooklyn and then to Guatemala.  And it felt as though it was something that had to be experienced, not simply via Youtube videos and Facebook updates. It's not as though I have any shortage of politically meaningful things I am doing here in Guatemala, or a lack of causes and actions with which I could affiliate myself. But this was taking place in my country, the belly of the beast, and although it seemed in some ways remote from the concerns of people here, it felt like the right thing to do.

So quickly I made plans --I could only go for a short time, as I did not want to take a lot of time away from my research and my various commitments here. In November I already had two conferences out of the country, and I had planned to visit Todos Santos Cuchumatan for All Saints's Day (November 1, but the festivities go on for several days before and after),  so I wanted to not have back to back trips. There was a training session for people in community radio the weekend of October 22 and 23 (I learned about it after the birthday celebration had been canceled) so that was another factor. 

I consulted with my daughter, as I wanted to see her, and she said Monday was her best day. So I checked flights and found a cheap fare leaving Sunday at 6, arriving in New York on Monday at 7 a.m. with a return flight departing on Wednesday morning. So I came up with this completely insane plan: I would attend the workshop in Xela on Saturday and then sometime Sunday would drive straight from Xela to the airport. That would mean only 48 hours in New York, an extravagance, certainly, but that would allow me to fulfill my obligations here and also have a brief taste of OWS.

And then it occurred to me that I could add my grain of sand by talking about Guatemala. I knew there was a full schedule of talks and other educational activities, and a few of my friends were on the education working group, so I proposed it to them.  

However, due to the weather, the workshop was postponed until October 29 and 30. Damn! I could have spent more time in New York, as long as I was making the trip. I looked for alternate flights but changing the reservation would have cost too much, so I left it as originally scheduled.

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