People Power, Then and Now

by Mark Chmiel

1.

To advocate human conversation as the means to restore hope to the future is as simple as I can get. But I’ve seen that there is no more powerful way to initiate significant change than to convene a conversation. When a community of people discovers that they share a concern, change begins. There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.  It is easy to observe this in our own lives, and also in recent history. Solidarity in Poland began with a conversation—less than a dozen workers in a Gdansk shipyard speaking to each other about their despair, their need for change, their need for freedom. In less than a month, Solidarity grew to 9.5 million workers. There was no e-mail then, just people talking to each other about their own needs, and finding their needs shared by millions of citizens. At the end of that month, all 9.5 million of them acted as one voice for change. They shut down the country.

– Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another  [2002]

2.

Inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world, and fueled by the feelings of anger and helplessness of everyday Americans, in the past month Occupy Wall Street has:

  • Gone Global: On October 15th, protests were held from North and South America to Asia, Africa and Europe, with over 1,500 events in 82 countries, as part of a global day of action.
  • Flourished with Diversity: Occupiers of different ages, races, walks of life, and political beliefs have joined the movement. The mix grew quickly to include students, elderly people, families with children, construction workers on their lunch breaks, unemployed Wall Street executives, Iraq & Afghanistan veterans, moms, and many others.
  • Gained Support in the Heartland: Occupy actions are happening all across middle America, from Kethcum, ID to Kalamazoo, MI, from Orlando to Anchorage. Every day financial contributions arrive along with clothes, food, and notes of support from all across the country. A couple from West Virginia who have been sending supplies to Liberty Square occupiers writes: “We are so grateful for all of you involved in this defense of America. We firmly believe this is ‘it.’ If we can’t grab this democracy this time, we’ll sink and it will be a long time before we will have this opportunity again. Thank you for taking time from your busy life to be there.”
  • Changed the Conversation: The people-powered force of shared anger at a broken system that profits the top 1% at the expense of the rest of us has shifted our national dialogue. The Occupy Wall Street protest has become a cultural phenomenon, mentioned everywhere from jokes on Saturday Night Live to the solemn dedication the national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by President Obama Sunday. We, the occupiers, have shown our country how to come together and respect differences while working together to build a movement for change.

Gdansk shipyard, August 1980