This is a photo of Benny Zable, an Australian street artist, who has had a visible presence at Occupy Wall Street since almost the first day. Wearing his long dark cloak, which he usually tops with a gas mask that completely covers his head, his hands hidden in white gloves, he stands mutely as passers-by read the dire pronouncements his costume urges on them: WORK — CONSUME — BE SILENT — DIE and I RELY ON YOUR APATHY. Benny’s presence at Liberty Park (its original and far more fitting name than Zucotti Park), in the hub of the American financial industry, brings visible spectacle to the art of saying NO, which Occupy Wall Street is doing so magnificently.
Yet even many people who support the aims of Occupy Wall Street and the rest of the Occupy movement spreading across the United States raise a consistent criticism: Why aren’t the protestors making up a list of demands? Why don’t they have a clear focus? Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times even tries to “help” the protestors by coming up with the agenda he feels they’re lacking. According to this point of view, you don't have a right to protest unless you know exactly how you want things to be different and can express it,
Many great revolutions have been launched with a loud, collective, passionate NO. “No taxation without representation,” shouted citizens of the thirteen American colonies in the 1750s and 60s. NO was the battle cry of the people who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, because they’d had enough of military rule, high unemployment, police brutality, and low wages. “Dites non!” (say no) is often the call to change that leads demonstrations in France.
Sometimes you have to shout out NO before you can articulate a more clearly defined YES.
And it’s been a long time since Americans have said no with any great conviction, almost forty years, by my count, when protests against the war in Vietnam finally helped bring an end to that conflict. Since then we Americans have mutely submitted to a whole slew of injustices perpetrated by those in power, including a war against Iraq launched wholly upon lies; shenanigans by the mortgage and housing industry that seduced hundreds of thousands of people into believing that they deserved a home they could not afford; a financial system that has brought many people to poverty, joblessness, and despair, while wealthy perpetrators continue to earn obscene amounts of money; and a war policy that defies the Geneva Conventions by permitting the practice of torture.
It is high time we shouted out NO! NO! We will not be victims any longer! NO: We object to being treated like this! NO: You may not carry on as if you the ruling elites represented the “99%” of the rest of us. NO: We will not be silent!
Occupy Wall Street is saying YES in many ways that the news media has ignored. They are being scrupulous about the way they handle financial contributions. They keep the park where they live and protest clean and free of litter. They compost. They drive the generators in their media tent through stationary bicycles that are constantly pedaled by volunteers. They are trying to imagine a better society and to live it. But the fact that the world perceives them as proclaimers of NO is really not a problem. They are speaking for many of us.
“I call attention to the dark side,” said Benny Zable when I spoke with him last week at Liberty Park. People who encounter him are shocked by his physical presence, his cloak weighted with dire messages. “They react,” said Benny. “They have to ask themselves: Where do I stand?”
Seeing the darkness and reacting to it is not a problem with the Occupy movement. It is their great gift to America. Saying no, we invite expanded consciousness of where we are and ask ourselves how we got there. Then we can say YES to something new and better that we will create more equitably together.