The Art of Occupy Providence
Several weeks ago, I was invited, through a rather ragtag Facebook invitation, to the “first planning meeting” of the Occupy Wall Street supporting occupation of my new city, Providence, Rhode Island. If you are unfamiliar with OWS, please inform yourself through the infinite knowledge of Wikipedia; if you have been reading the newspaper, watching the news, and/or following leftist blogs like this one, you will know that OWS stands for a myriad of issues, including but not limited to: the elimination of corporate greed/corporate control of the United States; the decriminalization of the poor; the need for more and greater efforts to end sexual, gender, racial, etc. discrimination; the abolition of capital punishment; and most of all, the ability of all Americans to live freely without having their spirits warped under the crushing load of supporting the lavish lifestyle of the top 1% of the nations’s wealthy.
Since I wholeheartedly agree with and support all of these goals/ideas, I was eager to become involved in a local chapter of the movement. But I was sorely disappointed- the small group that gathered that day was incredibly devisive, bickering amongst each other for the most trivial of concerns (like whether the one reporter who showed up should be “allowed” to report on the proceedings- in a public space where he had every right to be). I left early in disgust.
So imagine my surprise, and the great welling up of hope within me, when I heard that on October 15 (while I was entombed in the studio) a throng of Providence residents had marched through the city before taking up residence in Burnside Park (the middle of downtown). As soon as I could, I hurried down to the park to see it for myself- and saw tents as far as the park is long.
I walked around the encampment looking at everything (or trying- it’s quite the sensory overload), completely dumbfounded. There was a kitchen/donation receiving area run by almost unbelievably efficient volunteers (who, in case you’re wondering, practice impeccable sanitation, though the obtaining of a gallon of clean water represents an hour’s work). There was a “media/information” booth for newcomers to the movement. There was a clinic. There was a library, for heaven’s sake.
Occupy Providence’s statement reads thusly:
Open Letter to the People of Rhode Island:
Dear People of Rhode Island,
We the people of the Occupy Providence movement respectfully convey our intent to gather in Burnside Park on Saturday, October 15th at 5:00 pm and remain there for howsoever long it takes to build a society by, for, and of the people. Occupy Providence is a completely non-violent movement that seeks to give voice to the 99% of Rhode Islanders who have been disenfranchised as the economy and governance of our country has been increasingly ceded to powerful corporate interests.
The “occupation” of Burnside Park is an act of free speech which we feel compelled to resort to in order to have our voices heard. Occupy Providence will act with all due respect for the people and the property of the City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island, and we intend to leave Burnside Park in better condition than we found it. Occupy Providence is inclusive for all people and families of all ages: drugs, alcohol, discrimination, harassment, and violent behavior are NOT WELCOME.
We welcome your support in our efforts to come to a consensus on how best to challenge corporate greed, which places profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality.
Occupy Providence is a SAFE SPACE:
*Occupy Providence is a completely non-violent movement; violence and property destruction/defacing are not welcome, and do not represent us.
*Discrimination or harassment based on race, sex, gender, orientation, age, or anything else are not welcome. This includes any sexist, homophobic, trans-phobic, racist, or ageist behavior, speech, chanting, writing, etc.
*We are a drug and alcohol free assembly and occupation. Cigarette smokers are asked to please smoke at a respectful distance from non-smokers.
Soon I began visiting the encampment on a regular basis, sometimes bringing donations of canned soup or bottled water, always taking with the occupiers, picking up litter, washing dishes. Every day there are more tents- every day there is more music. There is always music, and always dancing- people seem to just get together and improvise, with incredible results. Children can run around unattended, because their parents know that no one will harm them (in the heart of one of the East Coast’s most crime-ridden cities). Many of the people there are jobless and/or have been evicted; some are veterans of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All are both angry and extremely optimistic.
It was hard for me to accept that a place this beautiful can actually exist without there being some sort of catch. But there isn’t. It’s obviously a very hard way to live, but surely hard work shared by all is preferable to the slaving of the many for the repose of a few. The occupiers, and their supporters, face constant threats of eviction from the city government, but the city keeps backing off, knowing that any harm done to the peaceful occupiers will make them into martyrs- which, in fact, they would be. Many of them already are. It’s hard to describe the bravery of these people.
And all that without mentioning yet the core of this post- that the “People’s Park,” as we now call it, is totally decked out with the visual artwork of the people. The fence that encloses the park is lined with colorful protest signs that bear drawings and bold flourescent paintings; occupiers sometimes leave paintings and sketches outside their tents:
One person lined their tent area with quotes from Yeats, painted with bright purples and pinks on cardboard: “He knows death to the bone- Man has created death,” ” The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time,” etc. Many signs declare that “a better world is possible,” or ask, “HOW SHALL WE LIVE???”
There is even a large instillation piece with a very clear metaphor:
(the accompanying sign reads, “This tree was not harmed in the instillation of this public art- Tom West [presumably the artist]).
This is a community dedicated to a method of change where the means are just as important as the ends; where visual art and music and danc
e and literature are just as important as rallies and pamphlets. They mean to make it a holistic change; they mean to model the kind of world they deserve through the very medium of their action. Imagine.
I don’t know what the world is like down in Zuccotti Park right now (though I plan to visit in two weeks’ time), or what it’s like in the dozens of other supporting encampments that have sprung up in the Occupy Wall Street (Occupy America!) movement, but I know that each time I visit Burnside Park, I can hardly stand to tear myself away. It is a place where hope is tangible, where you really feel as if, after years of dormancy, Americans are finally waking up.
There are those who hold that the occupiers don’t know what they want, that they are disorganized and chaotic, that they are, as one commenter on the blog Feministing wrote, “post-modern children.” That they are “spoiled brats.” Are people who gather each day to conduct a painstaking democratic assembly “chaotic?” Are the people who assemble mass meals and donation drives at the drop of a hat “disorganized?” Do people with an information booth, complete with literature, not know what they want? And most pressingly of all, are veterans and homeless workers and desperate civil servants and children “spoiled brats?”
The occupiers do not have a permit (government crackdowns after the wildly successful mass assemblies of the Civil Rights Movement have made this nearly impossible), and I do not know how long that otherworldly- and yet very worldly- community at the “People’s Park” will last. But the fact that they have been there, unflagging, for nearly a month, shows that Americans are still fighting- with music, and dance, and love, and art.
Goodnight, Occupiers. Stay warm and dry. God(dess) be with you, and may the fires in your heart burn bright. Those of us who cannot camp will be there to help you back up when they knock you down.