Occupying Wall Street

On our way to Liberty Square, we passed Ground Zero. Hundreds of people were gathered, less than a block from where the Twin Towers fell. They were socializing, reading, delivering impromptu speeches, or huddled together over the makeshift media center composed of perhaps a dozen laptops and other devices and connected to a whirring electrical generator.

The noise was intense, and the whining generator and tumult of voices was the least of it. City traffic on either side of the park blasted sound – the rumble of buses loaded with tourists; the honk of car horns and the squealing of brakes. Above all there was the roar of construction. Where the Twin Towers once stood, workers made haste, filling the gap in the New York skyline. The echoing clatter of metal on metal. It was often a challenge to understand the words of those next to you.

This cacophony lent an air of chaos to the already loosely-organized occupation in Liberty Square. First thing, we checked in with folks at an information desk on the west side of the park. “We’re here to sign up!” one of my companions announced. The young men at the info desk suggested that we could get involved with a committee, but encouraged us to look around and get a feel for things first. So, we moseyed.

It took us hours before we figured out how to participate actively in the occupation. At first, we simply mingled, ate, and watched the spectacle. For some reason, our first hours at the occupation were particularly “spectacular.” While most of the occupiers seemed like pretty ordinary citizens, there were a few hyped-up individuals who were running around giving impassioned, incoherent speeches. There were also a few nay-sayers who came to debate the occupiers.

There were lots of cameras. Mostly independent media, but I saw some local television stations, Russia Today, and even a brief visit from FOX News. Add to that the tourists who stopped to take pictures of the occupation, and there sometimes seemed to be more photographers than subjects. Eventually, a march was announced. We eagerly joined in, happy to finally be able to actively participate in some way. We wound through the streets of lower Manhattan, eventually walking down Wall Street itself.

The aspect of the march that most stood out to me was the luxury that we passed on our way. We passed a tobacconist, where wealthy men puffed on cigars and laughed at us from behind thick glass. We walked by up-scale shops where neckties were on sale next to horse saddles, and wristwatches worth more than my family’s annual income were available to those who could afford them.

It was eye-opening to be in the presence of the ruling class of this country. I get a lot of exposure to middle class – even wealthy middle class – individuals, but what I saw on Wall Street was of a different order. Some of them mocked us. There were cries of “take a shower!” or “get a job!” They took pictures of us and laughed as we passed.

Not everyone on Wall Street was a member of the elite, of course. It was fascinating to watch the difference in reaction between the ruling class and the working class people who were there to serve them. We got a standing ovation from the workers at Starbucks, and many working class people showed their support. Middle class folks seemed to be split. Some cheered us, others ignored us, and a few insulted us.

Wall Street is an ideal place to call for deep changes in how this country operates. Wall Street is not just a symbol – it is a functioning example of how the abusive power of the corporations and big banks dominate our society and mock our democratic process. More than ever, I am convinced that we – the ninety-nine percent – must hold accountable the elite one percent.

Occupy Wall Street is a movement to restore our democracy, rejecting corporate domination of our political system. This is a movement for economic justice, insisting that one percent of the population should not control eighty percent of our wealth. This is a movement for peace, issuing a call to end the wars that our country is waging around the globe. This movement is only secondarily about policy goals. Above all, it represents an attempt to create a community and culture that questions greed and concentration of power in the hands of the few.

The occupation is spreading. Though it began on Wall Street, there are women and men across North America who are offering our nation an invitation to embrace peace, justice and compassion. The occupation in Washington, DC begins tomorrow – Saturday, October 1st – at McPherson Square. I hope that those in the area will join us.

For those who do not live in DC, I encourage you to consider participating in an occupation in your home town. There are folks mobilizing in cities across the country, and we would all benefit from your participation. This is only the beginning, and we need your voice.

While I resonate with much of what Occupy Wall Street represents, it is important for me to be honest with myself that this movement is not grounded in a commitment to Jesus Christ. The occupation is – at least at this stage – a largely secular movement. Without the deep unity that the Spirit provides, the most we can ever be is a coalition, not a body.

But I believe that there is important work for Christians to do as part of this coalition. The Holy Spirit calls us to point towards the truth, mercy and justice that Jesus offers us, and it is my prayer that this growing movement will provide an opportunity for us to begin a conversation with the wider culture. May we as the Church let our light shine, providing an example of self-emptying love that draws the world into relationship with Jesus Christ.