The closest ancestor of Occupy Wall Street was the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in Berkshire, England. The encampment started in 1981, after some Welsh feminists called Women for Life on Earth marched from Cardiff to the RAF military base in Berkshire, asking to debate the siting of 96 U.S. cruise nuclear missiles there. Ignored, the women pitched their tents outside the fence. They were told to take their tents down. They slept under tarps or in the open. Over the years, thousands camped out, with as many as 70,000 showing up to link hands and encircle — or, as they put it, “embrace” — the base.
Journalists arrived from everywhere. Other camps sprang up across Europe. The women conducted thousands of acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to slow the war machine. They were repeatedly evicted and arrested. But they stayed — for 10 years, until the missiles left, and nine years more, until a monument to their struggle was erected.
Forget comparisons to the ’60s. What the current Occupy movement is emphatically not like is the old (pre feminist, male) New Left. The Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Square) is a feminist phenomenon in both deep and quotidian ways — not just in the ubiquity of women protestors but in its group process, nonviolent ethos, aesthetic feel and emotional tenor.
No one, and everyone, leads. “People ask all the time, like, who are the leaders? Well, none of us are leaders. And we’re all leaders. Exactly the same.” So says a woman at the beginning of a Meercatmedia video about consensus at Liberty Square.
Early second-wave feminists rejected hierarchies, too. Having walked away from the meetings where the men (and it was always men) who talked the loudest and longest held the floor, 1970s feminists felt there had to be a more effective, and fun, way of working together. The way was leaderlessness. According to some University of Amsterdam psychologists, that intuition was right. Their study found that narcissists tend to rise in organizations, largely because other people think their qualities — confidence, dominance, authority and self-esteem — make them good leaders. In fact, the narcissist’s preoccupation with his or her own brilliance stymies good decision making: it impedes the free and creative exchange of information and ideas.
In OWS, being long winded doesn’t get you anywhere. Instead, the crowd spins its arms to say, “Thanks, we get it. Wrap it up.” The gesture is part of a clever sign lexicon that lets everyone be heard without everyone having to speak. If you do speak, you can’t dominate the discussion. You raise your hand, are put “on stack” and wait your turn. And the human mics repeat every speaker’s words, noisy or quiet. Said one protestor: “We amplify each other’s voices.”
It’s not that no one ever takes leadership. It’s that anyone can, at any time — and in any way, no doubt informed by gender, class and origin. That many ways can flourish together was a discovery of the early liberation movements.
The practice is nonviolent. Every time those Berkshire cruise missiles left the base, either for exercises or to go to strategic locations during times of “international tension,” the peace campers dogged the transport. They painted peace signs on the truck windshields or hopped aboard. One woman disabled a vehicle by shoving a potato in its exhaust pipe. Every time, the demonstrators were arrested.
Some Wall Street occupiers are itching for confrontation, and they get it. But they are few, and the police initiate most of the head bashing in response to nonviolent, if sometimes illegal, action.
The second tenet of the Official Occupy Wall Street Good Neighbor Policy is “zero tolerance for violence or verbal abuse toward anyone.” The third is “zero tolerance for abuse of personal or public property.” Signs ask people to respect the flowers — the park is a public space for the enjoyment of all — and despite constant, shoulder-to-shoulder traffic, the chrysanthemums remain sprightly.
The movement is nonpartisan. The Greenham women did not align with either side in the nuclear arms race. Similarly, the Occupy movement refuses to side with any political party. These commitments reinforce the movement’s integrity and garner wide respect.
The means are also the ends. “You make the road by walking,” wrote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. The principle that guides direct democracy — not only a feminist process but also an anarchist one — would seem self-evident: You cannot create a just, peaceful, egalitarian society through coercion, violence or oppression.
This isn’t a matter only of doing politics. It’s one of daily life. The Greenham women lived on the Earth they wanted to save. Surviving without hot water, electricity or telephones reminded them hourly of the urgency of their cause.
Life in Liberty Square is rustic, too. Still, the library is getting huge. The food is healthy, excellent and free to all. The right-wing webzine Newsmax huffed that while other Americans are subsisting on Hamburger Helper, the occupiers are being fed gourmet meals by celebrity chefs. True. So are the homeless participants.
Like Greenham, OWS is a cry against the commercialization of everything, including death. And politics — political power and political imagination. For 30 years, Americans have been purchasing the solutions to their problems. That has diminished not just the creativity of solutions but the perception of the problems themselves. If there’s no app for it, it doesn’t exist.
At Zuccotti, there is nothing to buy — no T-shirts, no buttons, no signs. The 99 Percenters are cooking their movement from scratch.
The complaints are many and the vision utopian. Noting that the criticisms of OWS — too many crazy grievances, no strategy — were also hurled at the women’s movement, longtime activist and writer Meredith Tax posted on her eponymous blog the leaflet for the 1970 Boston International Women’s Day march. The leaflet demanded a radical overhaul of everything — from a guaranteed living wage to children’s rights to abortion on demand. It was so long, wrote Tax, it had to be printed on legal-size paper.
The occupiers’ grievances range from illegitimate mortgage foreclosures to “private contracts to murder prisoners.” There are famously no demands. That is as it should be, Jonathan Schell wrote in the Nation last week. “It was not a new set of policy ideas that was being born — the world was already overloaded with these, unacted upon — but a new spirit: a spirit of action, without which all the demands in the world are a dead letter.”
In 1991, the Greenham women won. The missiles were sent back to the U.S. under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Signed in 1987 by the U.S. and USSR, the treaty began by affirming the peace camp’s position: “Conscious that nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences for all mankind…”
Of course, the peace camp didn’t stop the war machine. The convoys are still rolling. Most of the 1970 Boston women’s demands haven’t been met. But feminism changed the world — including Liberty Square. If Occupy jams a potato into the workings of the humanity-devastating machine now, it will change the world again.