Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Plaza has become pretty much the place for self-styled progressive celebrities and politicians to appear. On the one hand, these visits are greatly appreciated by the occupiers and have helped strengthen the movement. However, they also raise tricky questions for a movement determined to be non-hierarchical and egalitarian. In a roundtable on the occupation movement at Religion Dispatches today, I try to explain the rationale behind the rather unfortunate recent episode in which Occupy Atlanta opted not to allow civil rights veteran John Lewis to speak to their General Assembly:
Occupy Wall Street has had its share of celebrity visits and they haven’t always gone very well either. The example that comes to mind concerns another prominent black leader, Russell Simmons, who was allowed to speak during a General Assembly meeting. He interrupted the discussion at hand and gave his two cents about what, in general, the movement should do, concerning the by-then-tabled question of “demands.” He received applause and thanks. But a few minutes later, after the scheduled discussion continued about how white, male-bodied people on the plaza needed to “check their privilege,” a white, male-bodied young man got up and said something like, “Perhaps celebrities should check their privilege, too.” That got applause as well. A lot, as I recall.
It’s really unfortunate that this has become a racial issue, especially when the occupiers have problems with outreach to some racial groups already. As one black left-wing journalist suggested in a conversation I took part in recently, it may be better understood as a problem of communication styles among different communities rather than active, albeit subtle, racism.
But I do think this represents a really interesting effort on the part of occupiers to—so to speak—kill the Buddhas of power and hierarchy in our society. And celebrity really is a huge Buddha. Even well-earned celebrity. I’ve witnessed other—including white—notable people getting essentially no attention during visits to the plaza. I think it’s really telling that Lewis chose not to hold a grudge. From his remarks, I don’t get the sense that he understands the movement in a deep way, but he does clearly understand—from experience—that creating a new world can get messy sometimes.
The occupiers’ obsession with process—the General Assembly meeting, in this instance—is one really important case of the role of ritual in what they’re doing. The ritual of process comes before all else because it is the vehicle of the future, and the bulwark against compromises with the past.