The restoration of citizenship: Is Occupy our opportunity?

Last night, I attended a forum at MIT to reflect on the significance of the Occupy movement. Pete, one of the Boston Occupiers who coordinates the medical team, was sharing stories about the challenges of daily life in Dewey Square, which alongside activists and protesters, has attracted drug dealers, sex workers and the homeless. According to Pete, the Boston police have essentially handed Dewey Square over to the Occupiers, requiring that they police themselves.

So in addition to challenging the economic status quo, Occupiers are confronted with questions of community security that our society has traditionally responded to through authority, control and force—the antithesis of Occupy values of participation, inclusion and solidarity. What to do? Pete said that while they don’t have the answers yet, they know they don’t want to replicate the way society confronts social problems. Under the stewardship of the Safety Team, they’ve ratified a Good Neighbor Agreement to seek to keep Dewey Square drug and alcohol free and to maintain zero tolerance toward violence and abuse. They’re exploring how to remove individuals from the camp. They’re inviting in the wisdom of seasoned street people to learn how to approach community safety collectively.

As I listened to Pete and read further about security in Dewey Square, it occurred to me how much more than a protest movement Occupy has become. In Walk Out Walk On, we found ourselves often in the conversation about “building the world we want today.” The communities we wrote about were walking out of failing institutions and walking on to experiment with new ways of feeding and sheltering themselves, of creating health and safety, of learning together and rebuilding relationships. This has never been about creating utopia. It’s about confronting the reality of our situation with new eyes, being willing to abandon limiting beliefs about what’s possible and who’s qualified to make a contribution. Walking on is an invitation for a different kind of social order to emerge in community.

So, too, is Occupy. Dewey Square is in some ways a microcosm of our society—for better and for worse, it amplifies our gifts and diseases. It places our social impoverishment under a microscope and invites us to do something different. It challenges us to re-learn what it means to be citizens who take responsibility for one another.

There’s no way the Occupiers can “get it right.” It’s absurd for anyone to expect them to. What they can do is continue to experiment with ways of sustaining community that are participatory, just and compassionate. The rest of us have much to thank them for.

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