The radical power of just showing up

Jillian Schwedler writes: The Arab Spring initiated a jarring series of events in 2011 that illustrate the radical political possibilities of just being present. When the regime won’t listen, when being heard as an individual isn’t really a viable option, simply standing together and being seen can be profoundly political and empowering.

But will just “being there” really bring significant change?

Revolutions never happen overnight. They result from accumulations of dozens, even hundreds of moments, often stretching over a period of years, that make possible the ruptures that emerge when vast numbers of people begin to imagine, and then to demand, an alternative to their living conditions. We have been seeing these moments over the past year, first in the Middle East but then spreading to England, Brazil, Spain, Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. In this sense, we are experiencing a revolutionary moment in which the popular perception of what is possible has indisputably shifted in a way unseen on a global scale since 1968.

This moment is revolutionary, even though revolutions are not imminent everywhere. People around the globe are simultaneously imagining alternatives to the conditions under which they live, and they recognise such movements taking place elsewhere and feel a connection, a kinship, with other who are taking to the streets and reclaiming public spaces. For some, the imagined future entails a fundamental change in the structures of government; for others, it entails an alternative to the economic status quo. But for all of them, often for the first time in generations, an alternative future feels possible and tangible rather than fantastical.

Revolutionary moments don’t always foster revolutions, of course. Political revolutions are only possible when the repressive security apparatuses that defend the regime – the army, the police, and other agencies of force – become divided. When armies divide, when some leaders and their troops defect, that is when a revolution becomes possible. But even this does not mean that a revolution will be successful. It can lead to a regime change, even a rapid or peaceful one, but more often it can lead to a bloody, protracted civil war. But for many of the citizens – albeit not for all of them – sustained bloodshed is preferable because it keeps alive the hope that an alternative future is finally within grasp. Witnessing people choose these bloody moments of possibility over the (sometimes bloody) status quo has a dramatic impact. If they can do it-when the obstacles they have successfully overcome were far more daunting than the ones we face – why are we acquiescing to the repressive conditions that limit the possibilities of our own lives?

Although many hope to dismiss its potential, Occupy Wall Street represents just such a revolutionary moment. It is a politics of refusal because of its strong and sustained rejection of a system that dismisses the economic struggles of most of the people on the globe. It is a refusal to feel helpless and powerless in the face of economic policies that favour banks and corporations at the expense of flesh and blood. That refusal has been manifest in the retaking of public spaces, an outpouring of people into places where their frustrations and grievances become visible. Merely standing together in public can be a radical political act because governments around the world seek to control how public spaces are used, preserving them for certain kinds of loyal and conforming citizens. “Undesirables” – the homeless, the punks, skateboarders, graffiti artists, groups of young men, and of course protesters who question the prevailing political and economic policies – must all be cleared from those spaces, sometimes at high costs. Who is welcome? Nuclear families, particularly if they are spending money.

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