Occupy Wall Street (OWS) began in September and quickly spread, becoming a unifying force worldwide. This movement was initially ignored and ridiculed by the US corporate media. Yet as it grew, it became harder to ignore. Repeated police brutality against peaceful protesters has pulled the Occupy Movement even more into the limelight and galvanized support for it.
A powerful contrast emerged between the militarized police violence and the occupiers’ courage and commitment to peaceful action. As the excessive force on peaceful citizens increased, instant YouTube videos capturing blatant abuses of power with chemical agents and truncheons went viral. The scenes displayed the violence, yet at the same time revealed the strength of ordinary people. Is the Occupy Movement creating a new kind of leader? Perhaps what we are seeing is a birth of the ordinary hero. They are everyday people, young, old, foreclosed, students and unemployed, showing how each of us can become our own leaders. Here are some of the faces and stories of these ordinary heroes:
Kettled and Sprayed
Occupy Wall Street was in its second week when a group started to march from Zuccotti park to Union Square. Two women were kettled in an orange net and maced by NYPD. This disturbing scene was caught on tape, uploaded onto YouTube and widely circulated. Just as the iconic photo of a little girl running from the napalm was a catharsis moment for the Vietnam anti-war movement during the 60’s, similarly this video of two women kept in a cage became symbolic, showing the police working for the 1% and brought public attention to the abuse of power and strengthened the movement.
We Are All Scott Olsen
The participants of these demonstrations cut across backgrounds and orientations and included war veterans. 24 year old Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was struck by a police projectile in downtown Oakland, California during one of the first police reactions. His skull was fractured and he was in critical condition for days. Significantly, the brain damage made him unable to speak. The video clip of that scene went viral and public support emerged around the world. With the twitter meme, “We are all Scott Olsen”, people united around the soldier who was attacked defending his country’s ideals here at home.
That show of indiscriminate force brought thousands more people to Frank Ogawa Plaza in support. On Wednesday Nov 2, the US saw the first general strike since the last one in 1946 which coincidentally also occurred in Oakland. Later, Olson posted a message, thanking those who expressed support.
I'm feeling a lot better, with a long road in front of me," Olsen wrote. "After my freedom of speech was quite literally taken from me, my speech is coming back, but I've got a lot of work to do with rehab.
Olson is not the only Veteran who was the victim of the Oakland police. Footageshowed Oakland police in riot gear stopping Kayvan Sabehgi, another Iraq war veteran who was passing through a street late on the night of the Oakland’s general strike on November 2nd. Officers beat Sabehgi hard and he suffered a ruptured spleen. Photographer Neil Rivas recorded the event. As his camera rolled at one point he shouted at police, “Hey stop stop stop stop … let it go … shoot me I am recording you, shoot me”. The raw footage was shared with the Guardian and revealed to the mainstream public.
The corporate media often refuses to report the news that is inconvenient to those in power, yet brave citizen reporters are everywhere, bringing these crimes of oppression to the public eye.
Occupy with Aloha
The waves of the Occupy Movement spread to the island of Hawaii. On Nov 12, during President Obama’s summit with leaders of Pacific Rim nations in Honolulu, popular Hawaiian singer Makana was invited to provide entertainment. In the midst of the dinner, he opened the jacket showing a t-shirt with the words, ”Occupy With Aloha” and sang his new song “We Are the Many” written for the movement. He sang it for about 45 minutes to these world leaders (who appeared to not notice him). He later recalled how he made the decision to do this when it occurred to him that there is something wrong with society if someone feels afraid of singing a song to the very people they wrote it for.
The video clip of him singing in front of President Obama and other world leaders was quickly shared via social media. He demonstrated the importance of speaking what needs to be said without fear to those who serve power, and that this is not only OK but is necessary for one to maintain their humanity.
Mario Savio Steps
During Occupy Cal outside of Sproul Hall in Berkeley, by the very steps that Mario Savio gave his famous FSM speech in 1968, students linked arms as robocops repeatedly jabbed them with batons. The Youtube video went viral and a Colbert Report episode pointed out how police first went after one that appeared to be the most vulnerable, an Asian girl in the front. The video showed that despite being hit she kept her body on the line. Her courageous act really lived up to Mario Savio’s words, as she was literally putting her body upon the gears, upon the apparatus.
Outrage at the attack on these courageous students brought many more people to the campus the next day. Thousands gathered for the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture that had become a part of the UC Berkeley strike, which was called in reaction to the brutality. Daniel Ellsberg, who was present sharedhis elation:
Frankly, it’s been a while since I’ve felt as much hope as I feel tonight. I’ve almost been reluctant to speak in public and let people know how hopeless I was—I felt at some times. And that mood has changed tonight. I don’t think it will go away. The young people are recreating the youth movement of the '60s, and the youth movement changed this country in the ’60s. And we haven't seen it really like this since then. So I have great, great hope for what’s coming out of this.
84-Year Old Retired Seattle Teacher
84 year-old retired Seattle teacher Dorli Rainey was pepper sprayed in the face during a protest. Rainey spoke in an interview at DemocracyNow:
The thing really is not about me getting pepper-sprayed. It is a much bigger issue than that, and I would like everybody to keep that in mind, that while we’re getting pepper-sprayed, other issues are not being heard. And that’s my problem.
The photo of Dorli's face after being sprayed traveled around the Internet showing the escalating impunity of the police crackdowns. In this photo not only did the world see the merciless thrust of an authority obviously afraid of the people, but also the wisdom of an elder that eloquently speaks for the movement. When we see what was done to her, the outrage goes deeper as it symbolizes an insult to wisdom, to a rare sane voice in a society run by illegitimate, lawless authority.
UC Davis Solidarity
At the UC Davis on Friday Nov 17, campus police raided the campus to take down the tents that students put up after being inspired by Occupy Wall Street. A police officer casually walked up to a handful of students sitting down peacefully with linked arms and pepper sprayed them like he was spraying Roundup weed killer.
The video clip of a supposed protector of the people and the first amendment abusing his power was all over the mainstream news and really confronted the world with what policing had become. Along with that chilling inhumane act, the footage captured the amazing human spirit in solidarity and deep caring of people who support those students. When police approached them, people began chanting, "don't shoot students". Most of all, it showed the moral power and the young people’s discipline in the face of asymmetrical brute force.
Occupy Bat Signal
On the same day of the UC Davis event, a Day of Action had been called nationwide in response to the uprooting of the original encampment at Liberty Square. There was a huge demonstration in New York City, while protesters were making their way to the Brooklyn Bridge, a series of bat signal projections emerged on the wall of the Verizon Building in Lower Manhattan. The beam rolled through a series of words:
99% / MIC CHECK! / LOOK AROUND / YOU ARE A PART / OF A GLOBAL UPRISING / WE ARE A CRY / FROM THE HEART / OF THE WORLD / WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE / ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE / HAPPY BIRTHDAY / #OCCUPY MOVEMENT / OCCUPY WALL STREET / list of cities, states and countries / OCCUPY EARTH / WE ARE WINNING / IT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING / DO NOT BE AFRAID / LOVE.
Boingboing interviewed one of the people behind this operation. Representing the crew, Mark Reed described the creative process. He spoke of the Occupy Movement as a response to all environmental and economic crises:
Our leaders aren't responding to any of that in a way that is commensurate to the crises we face. And that one sign has always spoken to me. We have to throw off our despair about the future world we might be facing, because if we come together as people and humanity, we can change it. And what Occupy Wall Street makes me feel is that for the first time in a long time that might be possible.
These powerful messages projected on the wall were shared instantly through Youtube around the world. This showed the creativity of the new leaders as a force that could bring us into a more human future.
World Citizen Meditation
The new face of leadership does not have a single nationality nor citizenship of any particular country. They are citizens of the world and no border can stop the waves of popular action for justice. Pancho Ramos Stierle was arrested when he was meditating at the Oscar Grant Plaza during an early morning raid on Occupy Oakland encampment. He spoke of how he responds to people who ask where he is from. “I say, ‘Well, I’m from planet earth.’ ‘And where is your citizenship?’ ‘I’m a citizen of the world.”
After his arrest, Thousands of supporters launched a campaign for his release. Within 24 hours, 6,600 signatures were collected on a petition.
These stories are just the tip of the iceberg of an emerging citizen power. What are we seeing in these new faces? Anytime we hear news and watch the video of police crimes against fellow brothers and sisters, we discover heroes. They are not like the leaders that claim to represent the people like politicians and government officials, but they are one of us. Perhaps we are seeing true strength made of courage, compassion, creativity and wisdom. Every day, people take the risk of getting arrested and engaging in civil disobedience. People are beginning to unite, feel for each other and realize that an assault to one is an assault to all. When action unfolds in solidarity in the face of insanity this awakening becomes a powerful force that no military or police can destroy.
Before the emergence of these ordinary America heroes, the trend had already been set in the Middle East and Europe. On Nov 16 after the police cleared Zucotti Park, writer and activist Arundhati Roy spoke at the People's University in Washington Square Park:
Few of us dreamed that we would see you, the people of the United States on our side, trying to do this in the heart of Empire. I don't know how to communicate the enormity of what this means.
The fire of self-immolation was lit in Tunisia, leading to people’s uprisings in the Arab Spring. Recently peaceful protesters were killed in Cairo's Tahrir Square. In Syria people continue to fight against brutal dictatorial repression. People the world over are rejoicing to see Americans finally joining these heroes.
Every drop of pepper spray, every rubber bullet that is used to intimidate opens up a ribcage and awakens the tender spot inside that remembers how to feel for a fellow man. Disturbing photos and videos of police brutality break our hearts. When it comes close to home, that pain makes us stronger, inspires humanity to unite and meet oppressive force with love. Every minute, every second, even now at this very moment somewhere in the world, a leader of a new global generation is being born.
As the movement continues, we see new faces of ordinary heroes that are leading into the future. History will remember them not as those with teargassed faces, cracked skulls, or lost speech but as those with courage and moral conviction who stood up for their grandchildren. The world will come to know that this is only the beginning of the beginning.