A brief hum filled the room, then everyone was turning my way, anticipating. I felt the heat rise in my face and glimpsed my hands, knotted tightly in my lap… What could I possibly say to these people? They wanted a hero from the Berkeley myth, not a girl with une voix aigue, my weak, high-pitched voice, spouting cliches in bad French. They were sitting patiently. They were waiting… Then I felt Annette’s arm come around my shoulders… “Jeanette, écoute… Please, whatever you have to tell us about American students… We want to listen to you.” –From Janet Magill at her first meeting of a small student “Revolutionary Action Committee” in Paris, 1968, in A Time to Cast Away Stones:
Both the 1968 protestors and the Occupiers have sought—and longed for—“liberty.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. When I made this claim at my writers critique group last December, people jumped on it (what fun!) – “How can you say Occupy is about a lack of liberty? Everyone is out there exercising their right of free speech! This is a free country!”
Up until now, I’ve compared the qualities that enabled sustainability in the Occupy Movement, qualities clearly lacking in the 1968 French May Revolution. I turn now to liberty as a purpose – you can call it an aim, goal, end, or a central theme. These movements were/are accused of having fuzzy goals. But even when you manage to grab hold of a central theme, the two appear very different from one another. To oversimplify—regime change vs. income equality and the restoration of the middle class.
In 1968, President Charles de Gaulle maintained tight control over the government, the media, and the tough security forces at his command. French students bristling at an antiquated and unfair educational system were forbidden from even assembling to complain to one another! So, you may ask, why compare the current Occupy Movement in the United States? Even with more police than protesters at some of the demonstrations and the destruction of tent cities, Americans have been permitted the space and opportunity to assemble and discuss. And no politician wants to be accused of subverting the Bill of Rights.
We are not in de Gaulle’s France, 1968. Or are we?
The Occupy Movement resuscitates the specter of seeking liberty from the May Revolution. What OWS has accomplished on a grand scale is to raise national awareness that the majority of Americans—the 99%—have relinquished their precious American voice. This national laryngitis has crept up on us. Our precious citizen’s voice is subdued by wealthy political donors and corporations (which have recently gained their peoplehood). Yes, unlike the French 44 years ago, we can talk publicly about sex and war and civil rights, complain openly and demand openly. But there is one thing we simply have not dared to talk about. Until now.
Now OWS has crushed, beaten and broken the last free speech taboo: money. Since OWS opened the floodgates, everyone from politicians to pundits speechifies about economic inequality. We acknowledge the reality of how our system has evolved over the past 25 years. While Americans endure the power of the few to make money by gaming the system, and those who would question economic inequality are media-whipped and censored, the power of money increasingly subverts democracy. The Occupy Movement seeks to regain that voice that admits the unthinkable, that the Democratic Republic has morphed into a Plutocracy.
If we have no voice, therefore we have no power, we have no liberty. OWS, like Paris 1968, has sought to raise awareness and reclaim our collective, inclusive voice.
Occupiers, like Parisians in May of 1968, feel alive. In A Time to Cast Away Stones, Janet hates her high-pitched “baby-doll” voice, and feels it will always prevent her from contributing to the improvement of her world. Today in NYC, she would have the “Human Mic” and Twitter to help her achieve meaningful involvement. But even without these remarkable innovations, in the City of Light, Janet discovers that her own voice can be effective, if only there is mutual respect among listeners. It took a year, but then de Gaulle was voted out. The conversation begun during the Events of May left a changed nation moving forward. Will Occupy do the same?
Visit http://www.elisefmiller.com for updates about A Time to Cast Away Stones, and more about the history of the May Revolution.