With the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the past six weeks, my natural curiosity was piqued as well as my identification with the demographics of the 99%. Young, 20-30-somethings who are unemployed or underemployed, faced with a bleak future where who you know in government becomes your only way to get ahead have risen up to demand fair treatment for all, not just the well connected. I didn't need to be sold on the movement, but I did need to be sold on the individuals at the General Assemblies and rallies. So I went to GAs in Albany and visited Zuccotti Park in New York City and took part in Occupy the DOE event at Seward Park School on 10/25. What I took away from these forays into active democracy was that these occupiers are putting themselves out as the face of the majority of the nation; they are desperate for a fair shake and not a hand out; tired of politicians who say they'll help them (all the while taking donations from the rich and powerful to make them more rich and powerful), and willing to risk their days making a statement for those who are unable or unwilling to join in with those in the 99%.
Yet I saw something else, much more familiar to me but eye-opening when I went to Zuccotti Park and Lafayette Park in Albany -- Occupy Wall Street is a democratic movement exercising our freedom through action. In doing so, it takes on the characteristics of a music festival, a cultural event that is at the same time a movement and celebration of freedom found rarely anywhere else in America today. Festivals are large gatherings of likeminded people gathered together to enjoy music. But if you take away the all day music, as well as the presence of alcohol and drugs from a festival and you have...
A gathering of people who drove a long destination for a common cause, excited for the potential of what is to come the next day;
A collective set of rules that are followed by all with input taken into modifying existing rules an open and welcoming environment;
Friendly faces and support from strangers, along with safety in numbers when there are threats or security to deal with;
Camping in tents, drum circles within ear shot, unique food and drink a short walk away, plus bathrooms that are... interesting, to say the least;
A scene that encourages all viewpoints and discussion, with free love shared with hugs, handshakes, high fives, knowing nods and smiles, and some intimacy at times;
And above all ... Free speech.
Now add in some sporadic music, and the description of Occupy Wall Street is a closer to that of a festival. Tom Morello, the Nightwatchman, has played to audiences in Zuccotti, as has Pete Seeger, reprising his role in the many protests of the 50s, 60s and 70s but now with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger alongside him. Talib Kweli has performed and donated to the protestors in Zuccotti Park, as have Anti-Flag and Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel. Among the acts to play Wall Street has been a rock guitarist, a folk legend, a hip-hop artist/poet, a punk band and an Indie Rock Band. The five of them alone make for a small festival lineup and at the same time describe the musical diversity that represents the diverse crowds set up in camps in New York City and throughout the country.
If you have been to a festival in the past decade, you might easily identify with this notion that Occupy Wall Street is relative to that of a festival. True, there are not many politically active groups or organizations at music festivals -- the music is the purpose for being there, causes and petitions are ancillary to having fun. The inverse is true with Occupy Wall Street, in that the causes are the reason for being there and the music, whether it be a group singing 'This Land is Your Land' or a drum circle that seems to start the moment you lay down to rest, is secondary, the background noise to the event.
Music festivals are weekends of freedom centered on listening to music, rekindling bonds with friends and loved ones, forging new bonds with those of similar interests and finding new music to take home. Occupy Wall Street celebrates the freedom of assembly centered on listening to the opinions of others, as well as speakers and sharing in conversations with friends and newcomers to the occupation. Forging bonds with those you agree with and common ground with those you don't, all the while taking a new viewpoint to look at and explore new ideas: these are at the heart of Occupy Wall Street. Growth of the mind, your viewpoint and knowledge, all while working to support a grander cause that doesn't focus on the self, but rather the group as a whole are the basic tenets of the movement. There would be neither festivals nor an Occupy Wall Street movement if the event was done for individual gains and the good of a few, since that would represent the 1%; instead, celebrating a cause -- music, freedom, collective unity, and analogous beliefs -- become the bedrock of both events and open their arms inclusive to all.
And as the movement has spread globally over the past few months since Tahrir Square, so too are festivals global events. They are held in every part of the world in every culture in one form or another. Festivals in America are indicative of the wide ranging audience of festivals that invites all and rejects none.
If you haven't been to a weekend music festival since the turn of the century, you might not see the connection. You might associate festivals with drugs, violence and youth gone wild, much like some in the media tend to portray Occupy Wall Street. Hearing that one report of a festival in your hometown where the hippies got arrested isn't indicative of the entire festival's population, nor is it representative of a movement on the whole. It's just what the media picks up on because it draws you in, and in doing so, forms your opinion for you. But attend a music festival with a friend, come prepared and with an open mind, and your experience will be much different, that much I can guarantee. My view on festivals changed when I began attending them in the mid 1990s and this view continues to evolve the more I go to. Now I see festivals for more than what they are at first glance -- they are a celebration of freedom, a short-term experiment where everyone looks out for each other while enjoying the main event. Occupy Wall Street is the long-term kin to the festival experience held throughout the country for much of the year.
Even though Occupy Wall Street has a festival feel to it, the seriousness of the movement is not to be dismissed in the process. The behavior seen at Occupy events has been symptomatic of a peaceful movement, one found at music festivals. The vibe felt at Occupy is a positive one and thrives nationwide because of the idyllic feelings towards their neighbors, one that would not be present if the movement was teeming with violence and hatred. Occupiers are upset, they are angry, but they are far from violent. They are angry at the crony capitalism and unfettered access the ultra rich and corporations get to our government, our land and our laws. The anger has been coalesced into a cultural movement that demands change and has united to show the strength in numbers behind these demands. Those who cite the drum circles and select acts of violence miss the big picture and focus only on 1% of the 99%, much like the government has been trained to focus on the needs of the 1% that have the money to finance elections, ignoring the 99% in the process. Some wish the movement to become more serious and have a set list of demands; be careful what you wish for, as this movement has evoked both King and Gandhi with non-violent protest and civil disobedience. From this, the inevitable festival-like atmosphere is one that can be sensed throughout the movements around the country, and luckily so: festival goers like me have to pay a few hundred dollars to feel this vibe for only a few short days. Meanwhile, Occupiers are able to bring the festival feeling to the streets of America and all they want in return is change from the oligarchic nature of our once democratic government into one that is again representative of the people, by the people and for the people.
So support the Occupy Wall Street Movement, it's the closest thing you get to a festival in most parts of the country this year.
Despite the recent crackdowns on Occupys across the country, the feeling is the same elsewhere, and it still present in New York City. The vibe you feel at one Occupy is similar to that at others elsewhere. The movement has begun and the feeling and nature of the gatherings will expand from the same base seeking positive change forward in America.
As the spring festival season approaches, the American Spring is just a few short months around the corner, and with it, music and freedom.
This post has been modified since its original publication.