Occupy Emotions

Ever since my initial exposure to Occupy Wall Street, I’ve longed to participate. The Occupy Portland branch has been thriving, but living outside the city on a St Helens farm, and temporarily without transportation, there was little I could do but watch.

So watch I did! I followed the #OccupyPortland and #OccupyWallStreet Twitter streams, read dozens of articles as they popped up daily, viewed scores of Youtube clips, and watched demonstrations on Livestream when I could. When protesters chose to sit down and be arrested in Portland’s Jamison Square, my heart longed to be with them. So I held vigil, watching until the last protester was arrested at 3:30 in the morning, livetweeting quotes from the Occupy Portland Livestream. I spread links across Twitter, Facebook and Google+. I traded thoughtful Tweets with Portland Mayor Sam Adams. But I had not set foot in the Occupy Portland encampment, or walked bodily among them in their numerous marches.

I felt a desperate, emotional need to be there.

When I finally walked the Occupy camp. I just thought I’d stroll through, take a look around, get a feel for it. But I got swept up in a demonstration at the Hilton, just a couple of blocks away, where JP Morgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon was speakingChase is my bank. How could I not go? And so I found myself standing on the corner of SW 6th and Salmon as a crowd chanted and waved signs. Equestrian police stood by across the street, and a hotel employee ushered men in suits past the protesters and through the glass doors. I didn’t get too close, or join in the chanting. I didn’t feel quite involved, not quite part of it. And besides, I was a little afraid. It seemed peaceful enough, but also a little wild, and who knows what the police response might be? Would I blunder into an arrest?

As local news personality Jim Hyde interviewed a friend of mine, asking him “if you could say something directly to Jamie Dimon, what would it be?” I realized, shamefully, that I didn’t know a thing about Jamie Dimon, or about Chase bank. I felt like a fraud. Mercifully, the reporter didn’t interview me, and my ignorance remained safely hidden away. I resolved to make myself informed. An hour on Google informed me that Chase had accepted a $25 million TARP bailout even though they didn’t need it and planned to use it to buy other companies, not to make new loans, had scammed homeowners into foreclosure, and that Dimon had cynically justified it: “Giving debt relief to people that really need it, that’s what foreclosure is.” I was nauseated and disheartened, but felt secure in my knowledge, at least. I could now participate in Occupy as an informed protester, able to back up my beliefs with “facts.”

But when I prepared to march for National Bank Transfer Day, it wasn’t “facts” I relied on. When I stayed up late on the eve of the march to paint my very own protest sign, it wasn’t economic statistics or political data that formed my slogan. It was a very simple, direct message that flowed straight from my gut:




There, inexpertly slathered onto cardboard in oil paints and edged by green creeping vines, was the true content of my heart. Somewhere inside my head a little voice nagged, “…but what about the foreclosures? The bailouts? Shouldn’t there be a ‘$25 billion’ or a ‘TARP’ or a ‘loan modification’ on that sign somewhere?”

But in the end, I do not rely on “logic” or “facts,” but emotions.

I’m not advocating illogic, or actions based on untruths.  But “facts” are tricky, illusive things, far more subjective than their immutable appearance, which serve our feelings and not vice versa. Ultimately, we rely on our emotions.

And I think that’s a good thing.

Emotions are a survival tool. Emotions are a sensory input that gives us information about our environment just as surely as sight or smell or hearing. Emotions tell the story of our lived experience. Emotions are a guide from our deepest place of inner knowing.

It’s our emotions that are telling us that something in our civilization is deeply wrong.

It’s been wrong for quite some time. decades, or millennia, depending on who you ask. The Occupy movement, to me, is the result of millions of people finally listening to the nagging emotions that are desperately warning them of danger. Emotion has finally led to action.

When I painted my sign, it was important to me to write an emotional message, one that would inspire empathy. Though I didn’t realize it at the outset, I see now that it was also important that it be a positive one: a glimmer of hope and a glimpse of community. I knew there would be plenty of negative messages. And those messages are important! Feelings of rage, hurt, betrayal, and hopelessness…these are all vital messages, telling us that we’re in danger and need to act, collectively, for our future.

When I marched (you can catch a glimpse of me and my sign at the 1:45 mark), the signs of rage were there, yes. We chanted “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” and “Move your money! Make Wall Street pay!” We plastered Citizens’ Arrest Warrants to bank windows with rainwater, for “accusations of robbery and obstruction of justice.” The protest signs around me contained accusations and sentiments of righteous indignation.

But you know what? The prevailing mood was one of joy. We were a tide of gladness and solidarity, snaking across downtown to the lot of a local credit union, whose staff were waiting for us with coffee, donuts, and paperwork to open an account. Even the most accusatory statements and chants were shouted with beaming smiles. The simple, community-building act of switching from Wall Street bank to local credit union was incredibly empowering. We were not victims—we were doing something; we were banding together; we were resurrecting hope. We were the face and voice of fear overcome.

The Occupy movement still has a lot of hurdles to overcome. A lot of internal strife, sexual violence, and lack of inclusion is threatening to destroy us in ways that corporations and cops never could. And even as I type this, Mayor Sam Adams has issued an eviction notice for the Occupy Portland encampment, effective in little more than 48 hours, citing the camp’s inability to deal with violence, sanitation and drug use.

So I fear for Occupy. But I still remember the joy. And I recall something a good friend told me recently, when I was in the grip of some terrible feelings that threatened to rip apart some of my closest relationships: “There are no useless emotions. We’re not made that way.”

So I challenge Occupiers to continue to be led by our hearts. I challenge us to empathize, to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others, to give a voice to the voiceless and love to the loveless. Our stories and our feelings tell us that the power structure is unjust, and that our families and friends are in very real danger. Our emotions and empathy can show us the way toward loving solutions to the difficulties that plague the movement. It is then that we’ll be free to focus on the real, activist work of forcing change through our presence and our voice.




4 Responses to “Occupy Emotions”

  1. November 19, 2011 at 7:05 am

    Great piece, Joel, and great sign. From here in Australia, what seems like a world away in so many ways, I envy you your experience.

  2. 3 Joel
    November 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks, both of you! It was a wonderful first step into the Occupy world. Check out my new post, “Occupy Story,” for a far more intense experience!

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