Yesterday I went down to Liberty Plaza, aka Zuccotti Park, and spent some time talking to folks and handing out photocopies of Christopher Ketcham’s Orion article “The Reign of the One Percenters.” It has been exciting to have that article in production, allowing Orion a somewhat rare opportunity, as a bimonthly publication, to be in sync with current events. Credit for that goes mostly to the author, who pitched the story last winter, believing passionately that income inequality was a problem that our culture had not begun to reckon with in any serious way. Several months and several revisions later, the article is out, and we’ve been sending photocopies of it (as well as boxes of magazines) down to the informal library created by the Occupiers.
I can think of no more important place, at this moment in time, for Orion to be found than the Occupy Wall Street Library, aka The People’s Library. I can think of no more important place for our authors’ books to be found. The People’s Library is organic, democratic, and philanthropic. It is comprised entirely of donated books—donated by individuals, by authors, by bookstores, and by publishers. Using donated software, the Occupiers have begun to catalog the library, which is said to be at about 3,000 titles and growing daily. And they’ve established a free WiFi hotspot for Occupiers and others to use. People browse the stacks—which are organized by genre and stored in plastic tubs—occasionally recommending books to one another. Several librarians occupy a table in a corner of the library, where they catalog incoming books and help others locate titles within the eclectic collection. This is what ingenuity looks like. This is what the gift economy looks like. Here is a group of people who cherish the exchange of ideas, and have worked to create a space where that can freely happen. This is democracy in action.
Many journalists and pundits have criticized Occupy Wall Street and the movement it has spawned for having no clear agenda or platform or list of demands. But I think they’ve missed the point. Having only spent a few hours there, I certainly can’t speak for those who’ve been camped there for weeks, but what I saw in Liberty Plaza looked to me like it was the platform. Instead of a list of demands, the Occupiers are offering a list of examples—of which The People’s Library is but one. If you go to Liberty Plaza, you will see them: the all-volunteer food service staff; the all-volunteer sanitation department; the all-volunteer information desk; the all-volunteer first-aid station; the community coat rack; the barter area; the “power to the people” device-charging station.
The statement, for those too concerned about platforms to see it, is that it is possible to live differently. It is possible to consume less, to consider each other equals, to work together instead of every man for himself. I don’t think anybody at Occupy Wall Street would suggest that it’s possible for everyone to live the way they are, at least not for any length of time. But we certainly could live a lot more like that. We certainly could do more to differentiate our wants from our needs. We could do more to help our neighbors. We could withdraw our support for the institutions that are harming our democracy and our planet. We could work together on a range of issues in our communities—from how we will feed our ourselves in the years to come to how we will eradicate the corrosive effect of money on our political system.
Many have likened the scene at Liberty Plaza to a ’60s protest or a Grateful Dead show or Burning Man, but it reminded me more of scenes from Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, a book that showcases the extraordinary cooperation and humanitarianism that arise in the wake of disasters, natural and otherwise. The disaster, in this case, is the corporatocracy that has resulted from a corrupt financial sector wielding undue power over a flagging democracy. This particular disaster may not have left our communities looking like a hurricane blew through just yet, but if it is allowed to continue unabated, that time is surely coming.
Jennifer Sahn is Editor of Orion.