catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 19 :: 2011.10.28 — 2011.11.10


The politics of bearing witness

Even before we arrived at the corner of Lasalle and Jackson we could hear the sounds of the protestors beating on drums made from trash barrels like a makeshift version of Stomp. As we rounded the corner we could see that they were positioned among the enormous granite columns that form the entrance to the Chicago Bank of America headquarters. Directly across the street stood the equally imposing edifice of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank. Even with these two stone giants towering above them, the group of thirty or forty people still looked very conspicuous, especially since they were toting cardboard signs instead of briefcases and wearing Guy Fawkes masks instead of ties. We quickly joined the circle, which had become large enough to block most of the sidewalk and the entrance to the Bank of America building. And just like that, we were “Occupying” Chicago.

At the center of the circle a few young women took turns expressing their admiration for the movement and its value of people over property. They were followed by a young man who announced plans for a march and a general assembly later that night. Next, a Native American man spoke of his life on a reservation. Finally, an older man entered circle and began to sing “Wade in the Water” and was joined by the rest of the assembly.

My first question was what, exactly, were we doing by “Occupying” Chicago? Isn’t “occupying” just another way of saying “just taking up space?” Were we just “getting in the way,” or “disrupting?” Certainly a lot of people who were simply trying to get to their jobs and get on with their lives seemed to think so. The security guard for the Bank of America building who kept asking us to move aside seemed to think so. Part of me felt like a kid again, when “disrupting” class was a commonly punished offense.  The education that tells us in myriad ways that society will not tolerate forms of disruption doesn’t end with childhood. Rarely are we are encouraged to entertain the notion that there might be some things worth disrupting.

Later that evening, we marched to Grant Park (where 130 protestors would later be arrested). More occupiers had been pouring in in droves, and it was clear that there were well over two hundred of us by the time the march began. As you can imagine, a group of this size stretches across several blocks. With everyone chanting “We are the 99%” and waving signs, the spectacle literally stopped traffic and all other pedestrians as it passed through. I began to see that this was more than just disruption. This was something else. This was bearing witness.

Here is an example of what I mean: imagine that you twist the knob to your front door and it just spins. The lock does not budge. You are left staring at the door, really noticing it and thinking about how it works for the first time. The functions you had always taken for granted now seem so fragile and contingent. Suddenly your imagination must work in new territory as you realize that you’ll either have to think up a different, more creative solution to make the door do the thing you never had to think about before, or you will have to scrap the idea altogether. Maybe you will go in through a window, maybe you will kick in the door, maybe you will go out for pizza while you call a locksmith.

The occupiers’ disruption is like the broken knob. It allows us to defamiliarize ourselves with the symbols we have been taught to put our confidence in. It shows us the false religion that has been around us all the time, that we have been content to go along with. We have been entering its chapels and worshipping at its altars unsuspectingly. We have venerated its sober-visaged saints whose images populate the green papers in our wallets and purses. The occupiers help us to imagine new ways to respond to these calls to worship.

When many people encounter this defamiliarizing effect that the Occupy movement can have, their first impulse is to defensively ask: “What is your solution? What do you think would be better? Show me your position, your set of demands, and a clear program for change.” But the truth is that the Occupy movement is not a political party, but an ideologically, ethnically and socio-economically diverse group of people. They are united around something, although what that something is is often unclear. So when scoffers ask, “So what is your solution?” I think the occupiers should honestly answer, “We have no idea.”

However, people from all over the political spectrum have complained about this aspect of the Occupy movement. Even Bill Clinton, during a recent appearance on “The Late Show,” claimed that the protests “need to be for something specific, and not just against something because if you’re just against something, someone else will fill the vacuum you create.”

Even in Clinton’s seemingly sound advice I sense a desire to “get by” to “make things work,” and to “hold on for better times.” The act of bearing witness makes us recognize these statements as the failures of imagination that they are. The great thing about bearing witness is that it doesn’t just announce that a different reality is out there, it also embodies the reality it speaks of. When we are aware of this reality, we do not have to resign ourselves to immediate solutions.

History has show us that any social arrangement, however oppressive, can last unchanged for centuries so long as everyone is intent of just “getting by,” and not bearing witness to the fact that the door knob is broken. This is why so many of the most powerful social movements in recent history have involved simple renunciations. As soon as one woman (Rosa Parks) refuses to give up a seat on a bus, or one man (Mahatma Gandhi) refuses to continue the simple act of eating, or a couple (John Lennon and Yoko Ono) decides to simply stay in bed and grow out their hair, the possibility of a different reality suddenly appears for the first time. In each case, the simple refusal to go along with things as they had always been exposed cracks in the system that the language of political demands never could.

Perhaps I have made bearing witness may seem like a heroic and triumphant act. However, I believe the Occupy movement actually points out in powerful ways how beautifully mundane this activity truly is. When the march ended, all of us protestors gathered round to listen to members bring forth motions and objections to motions. We voted. Another motion was presented. In all truthfulness, there is a sort of tedium in the democratic process. Even the important act of bearing witness becomes a common affair located in the acts of patience, participation and sharing our time. Therefore, I believe that bearing witness is an activity that is always part of everyday life. We bring it about in each act of listening, in honest words, and in careful, sustained acts of attention. This means that each of us can bear witness, and perhaps that we have already begun.

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