The room was surging with energy as members of Occupy Wall Street mingled with attendees at the town hall meeting. Harry Boyte and Dennis Donovan, organizers of the event and long time community organizers, invited students, colleagues, and all others interested in learning more about a variety of controversial social issues. This week’s topic: Occupy Wall Street.
The over-arching theme of all ‘Town Hall Meetings’ is the regular practice of democracy. It is assumed that all persons attending understand and respect the fundamental principle that guides the town hall meetings: with democracy comes a responsibility as citizens, to learn about what is going on in this country and to delve into discussion and debate, freely, as we decide for ourselves what we believe in. Free and open debate, unhindered by intimidation nor disrespect is critical to the success of the meetings. The clock struckseven o’clock and it was time for the meeting to begin.
Mr. Donovan directed the crowd to chairs positioned in a circle, an arrangement intended to facilitate open discussion. He began the meeting by emphasizing key points. “Democracy is argument,” he explained. He reminded the participants, “the freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted. SeveralOccupy Wall Street [OWS] members interrupted his remarks to suggest changes to previously established discussion guidelines. The OWS ideas were overruled respectfully, and the meeting resumed with the customary participant introductions. “We are the 99%… We are the 99%…” Attention was once again directed to a group of OWS members chanting in unison. As their voices swelled, the room seemed to fill with a sense of unease and tension. What was the reason for their behavior? Did the group misunderstand the purpose for and principles of the meeting? What were the motives? Whatever the reason, the tenacity of the group was evident as members indirectly intimidated other speakers, challenged Town Hall motives, and criticized the Town Hall image as detrimental to its cause.
Sam, a college aged participant, had observed and listened intently to the interaction between the OWS members and the other attendees. He was intrigued by the interaction and curious about how the OWS responded to several questions. Finally, he could hesitate no longer, boldly raised his hand and was invited to speak: “Currently, I am taking a history class designed to go over American history from 1945 to the present…with that said, it seems that your intentions are good, but it doesn’t seem like the OWS has clear goals and therefore, lacks in credibility. Also, the end goals they do have are not necessarily tangible.” He paused in anticipation of a response.
A response soon followed. Scott, a self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of OWS, spoke candidly and passionately about his work experience and observations of the movement. “My experience during my first day with OWS triggered a ‘what do YOU want’’ question and made me feel like there were forty people and forty different messages… a bit of a narcissistic movement”. Scott concluded by explaining that OWS had no other goal but to achieve active involvement. “We cannot all agree…the trouble is getting involved and the problem is the process”.
Harry Boyte, co-planner of the Town Hall Meetings and seasoned organizer, joined the discussion by acknowledging that the movement exposed very vividly the issue of inequality inAmerica. However, he warned the group about the inherent harm of fostering and furthering divisiveness. Boyte used the example of a woman at the meeting. He described her emotions by saying that she “felt hopeless, OWS gave her hope”. He cautioned, “You cannot go about dividing the world into good and bad and expect to gain momentum and ultimate success”.
The discussion intensified and emotions heightened. Respectfully, Oliver, a middle-aged gentleman, stood to respond to Boyte’s comment, “Polarization is incredibly dangerous. Yes. But OWS is bringing together a diverse group. Although, I do not see a middle ground, there is an awful lot of one-liners and rhetoric flying as the gap is widening, and I am seeing a deep fractioning of society”. Likewise, another participant addressed the divisive nature of the “99%” chant. “Why”, it was asked, do you eliminate the 1% from the discussion table? Isn’t it more productive to include the 100% in the conversation? You advocate for involvement, political change, and empowerment of the citizenry. Why would you exclude 1% of the population? It has the image of divisiveness and hypocrisy.” The OWS member responded, “The reason why we do not invite the 1% to the table is because they own the table.”
Several participants voiced their opinions regarding the tactics used by the OWS to attract public attention. Hate speech and vulgar actions, it was noted, would eventually destroy the OWS public image and the group’s message. The OWS member placed blame on media’s reporting of events and the tremendous emotional response that ensues when confronting established power. “False media interpretation”, he said, “It gets intense when people go up against power”. Many who sat in the circle of chairs may have considered the OWS GROUP ‘intruders’. Yet, despite this unexpected and uncomfortable intrusion, those in attendance learned much about both sides of the issue. Discussion became intense at times. Yet, the non-OWS participants had an opportunity to hear the issues of the OWS first hand, observe their passion, and gain a better understanding of their position.
The OWS, on the other hand, was the recipient of excellent advice. They learned that the public was confused by the inconsistency of the message, impatient with the polarizing strategies and tactics used, and saw hypocrisy in the group’s policies and beliefs. It became clear that if the OWS movement is to continue and earn public attention and respect, it must achieve a very clear and consistent message, redesign strategies, and invite the 100% to the table.
As a witness to this event, this writer learned a tremendous lesson about democracy. Some participants may have left the meeting feeling angry and disappointed. They may have thought that the meeting had failed in its purpose due to the unexpected conflict and intense dialogue. Some may be disappointed because the meeting did not ‘come off’ as planned. Others may get lost in determining who one or who lost. Many may be uncomfortable with the tenacity and persistence demonstrated by the participants. However, this observer believes the meeting was a great success and it fulfilled its intended purpose. Information was shared, opinions were discussed, and both sides were heard. All one has to do is review Mr. Donovan’s introductory comments:
“Democracy is argument. The freedom to express differing opinions and to debate high profile and controversial issues is a privilege that never should be taken for granted.”
By Jeffrey Abelson, Founder of Song Of A Citizen
Ask any expert what civic engagement means, and you’ll hear mostly about voting and volunteering. Both big V’s are obviously vital to a healthy democracy and good society. But by themselves they’re insufficient to solve the growing list of crises and challenges our
country and communities face. There’s a missing third leg of civic engagement that we need much more focus on.
What is that third leg? It starts with acknowledging that we each have a serious job to do as citizens that goes beyond what we’ve been led to believe. That job entails not only staying well informed on the issues of the day, but being actively engaged in hands-on political decisionmaking and problem-solving.
But most Americans feel there’s no way to make their voices heard in an effective manner. The good news is that there is. There are proven methods and processes that empower ordinary people not just to be heard, but to have a direct impact on public policy. And do it in a way that neutralizes polarization. Study up on deliberative democracy to learn how it works.
And then give it a try. Join or stage a deliberative forum on your campus, or in your community. Experience first hand what it’s like to be in a facilitated dialogue with other students, and/or faculty, or fellow citizens — where you learn about an issue together, and sort through the tough trade-offs involved in addressing it. And do it in a way that results in 70 to 80 percent agreement.
Imagine that. Not 51% Not 60%. But 80% agreement! Sounds nuts, but it actually happens time and again in these serious citizen forums.Okay, now imagine them happening everywhere, all the time. Imagine a country, and a Congress, that can agree on transformational cross-partisan fixes that 80% of us can understand and support. On
issue after issue.
Like the sound of that? You can make it happen. In fact, you’re probably the only ones who can. As college students, you have the opportunity to learn about and get inspired by the deliberative process. You can then lobby your schools to stage such forums on
campus — by and between students, and faculty, and community members.
And then you’ll be ready to take the critical next step. To lobby your parents and grandparents to get in the game as well. Because as much as we need today’s college students to immerse themselves in the never-ending work of the serious citizen — to prepare to run the country down the line — we can’t afford to wait another 10 or 20
years until you take the wheel. We need today’s grownups participating as well. Right now.
And nobody’s in a better position to inspire inter-generational partnerships than you are.
So the cliché is true. The future is literally in your hands. And in the sounds of your voices.
“The American idea is a beautiful idea.
It needs to be preserved, served, protected — and sung out.”
Happy Holidays from Song Of A Citizen.
Jeffrey Abelson is a writer, filmmaker, and founder of Song of a Citizen. His most recent PBS film was Drawing Fire, about Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Paul Conrad (narrated by Tom Brokaw).
Song of a Citizen is a non-profit, non-partisan collaboration of prominent thinkers and artists producing innovative films and web videos designed to spark a much-needed upgrade in how we-the-people view our role as citizens — and to demonstrate proven methods for transforming ourselves from passive civic spectators into hands-on political problem-solvers.
Jeffrey is also a contributing blogger to The Huffington Post.