Occupy and the Rise of the Millennial Generation

The Occupy movement has been an emotional roller coaster. At first, there was great surprise that this movement was even happening. As we occupied the streets, parks, banks and public buildings, surprise gave way to elation. After all these years of waiting for someone else to take charge and set our country back on track, we were compelled to put our bodies where our hearts were. We stepped into the streets and out of a lost decade of fear, disempowerment and despair.

For many occupiers, the past ten years had been a time of intense darkness. A wordless despondency had crept over my generation. We watched with tears as war finally came home on September 11th, 2001. We groaned in helpless outrage as our nation’s leaders took advantage of our collective trauma and fear to invade weaker, oil-rich nations. We despaired as we saw America abandon any semblance of respect for the international community, instead striking a belligerant pose of imperial might.

Though few of us could clearly articulate it at the time, we knew that this new posture represented weakness, not strength. We, the generation who had come of age at the “end of history,” were beginning to realize that history had only just begun. America would not last long as the world’s sole superpower. The economic collapse that began in the fall of 2008 confirmed our suspicions that we were nearing the end of the American Century.

Yet, there was hope. With the election of Barack Obama, many of us dared to believe that America might change its trajectory. Using the economic crisis as an opportunity for spiritual growth, perhaps we could once again become a respected and respectful member of the world community. With new leadership, we could begin to address the climate crisis that threatens all of us. I personally held out hope that this new regime would focus more on education, health care and poverty reduction – rejecting the pattern of endless military build-up and systematic reduction of civil liberties established during the Bush years.

After a couple of years in office, however, it was clear that Obama would not bring change we could believe in. We had been duped once again by a politician who promised a fundamental shift in our society’s way of operating. In practice, he mostly propped up entrenched elites – the financial and banking industries, the military-industrial complex, pharmaceutical companies and Big Oil. As thousands were losing their homes and poverty soared, we saw the political landscape with new eyes.

We watched with disgust as virtually all of our lawmakers colluded with powerful, elite interests that ignored the needs of ordinary working Americans in favor of their own narrow interests. Many of us were becoming convinced that neither Democrats nor Republicans offered solutions for the multiple crises that we were facing as a country. All of them – Left and Right, Democrat and Republican – were more interested in the concerns of the wealthy elites than they were in the long-term health of our nation as a whole.

So, when young people in New York City began to “occupy” Lower Manhattan and call for justice for the “99%,” we knew exactly what they were talking about. Not only did their words resonate, but we soon began to realize that public dissent and direct action were the only ways that we could exercise our civic duties as citizens. The ballot box had been reduced to a choice between Pepsi and Coke. Only the streets, parks, and public spaces of our cities remained free. It was there that we could make our voices heard and begin to take part in a real conversation about the direction of our country.

In a very real sense, many of us became citizens for the first time as a result of this struggle. Always before, our voices had been confined by the straightjacket of the corporate-controlled two-party system; but now, we were free to express directly our rejection of a system that privileges the greed of the wealthiest 1% over the needs of our whole society.

Though the Occupy movement initially rallied around a shared rejection of the status quo, we are quickly discovering ways that we can put forward a positive program for change. In recent months, occupiers have thrown themselves into practical, positive work for a more just society. At this early stage, foreclosure resistance figures prominently in our efforts. We seek to thwart institutionalized theft by predatory banks and to empower ordinary homeowners and renters.
This is a hard struggle. There were several weeks in December where I almost completely dropped out of the movement. I had to, if I was going to retain my sanity! Everything was happening so quickly that being involved in Occupy DC meant living in a constant state of crisis. Clearly, that level of stress and anxiety is not sustainable.
The first months of the Occupy movement were a process of birthing a new reality. Across the country, thousands of new activist leaders emerged in a matter of weeks. We are now discovering together what it means to live out a vocation as organizers for positive social change while maintaining our spiritual grounding and living healthy, sustainable lifestyles. Many of us are brand new to this whole activism business. All of us are learning how to be effective change-agents in this new space that has emerged as millions of Americans awaken to the urgent reality of economic injustice and ecological crisis.
This movement is messy. There is so much to do, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that we have taken on. Some of the smartest, most kind-hearted people I know feel like they are in totally out of their depth. Thousands of us have been thrown fresh from college or unrelated jobs into the trenches of street organizing and grassroots activism. We were not prepared for this!
But the work itself is schooling us, and as time goes on more experienced organizers are stepping up to give us the practical training that we need. The learning curve is steep, but we are climbing it. We are testing our limits and pushing our breaking points.
This is just the beginning. The Occupy movement represents nothing less than the activation of the practical citizenship of my whole generation. In just a few months, Millennials have stepped out from the fearful conformity of the 2000s and are embracing our power as a generation that can make real change, now.
As someone who has spent most of my adult life working under the supervision of people over fifty, it is amazing to be involved in organizations like Occupy Our Homes DC, which is made up almost entirely of people under the age of thirty-five. All of our lives, we have looked to the Boomers for direction, guidance – and permission. But in this movement, we have definitively stepped outside of the old generational hierarchy. It is a joy to see that we, the Millennial generation, are taking leadership and inviting our elders to join us in the struggle for heart-change as a society.

We know that slight modifications of the present order will not be enough. We need a fundamental revisioning of our whole way of life. We must examine the ways in which our own entrenched attitudes and habits have contributed to a society in which a small elite controls most of the wealth and dominates public discourse. Now is the time to have these conversations. We have a window of opportunity to profoundly reshape our national self-understanding, to live up to America’s founding creed of liberty, justice and equal opportunity.

As my generation is moves out of the trauma-induced paralysis of the 2000s, we are finding our voice as equal participants in the national conversation. I hope that elder generations will take this shift seriously. Just as the rise of the Baby Boomers in the 1960s forever altered the nature of America’s public discourse, so too will the coming of age of the Millennial generation. One thing is certain: Business will not continue as usual.