Welcome to the Occupation: 21 Days, Two Deaths and the Evolution of the Millennial Generation

by Dax-Devlon Ross

1. 

Troy Davis and Steve Jobs.

Their lives evoke two quintessentially American allegories: the nightmare and the dream. One will be remembered and retold as a tragedy. The other will be remembered and retold as a triumph. One will evidence how far we have to go, the other how far we can go. 

Their deaths illustrate the limits of the most advanced society in the world. On one hand, the limits of justice; on the other, the limits of science.  An army of lawyers, a cadre of high-profile supporters, hundreds of thousands of supporters, and persuasive evidence both of his innocence and state misconduct could not save Davis. Billions of dollars and access to the best medical treatment money can buy could not save Jobs. In the end, they were powerless against their fates but faced their ends with grace. 

Their images evoke the contradictions of American exceptionalism. If it is the case that this nation’s unique origins and odyssey make it distinct from and superior to any other society the world has ever known, then we can not celebrate the beautifully productive life of a Steve Jobs without mourning the hideously pointless death of Troy Davis. 

The stories may not appear to fit together, but, in my mind, they will be forever linked as bookends to a chapter about a turning point in American history. Whether the chapter will be about the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning is as yet undetermined. What we know now is that in the 21 days between the deaths of Troy Davis and Steve Jobs, a progressive movement was born.   

Three weeks ago the mainstream media was dismissive of Occupy Wall Street. Few people who even knew the occupation had begun believed it would last let alone gain momentum and catch fire. I was down on Wall Street those first days. I saw the spotty numbers in the park. I sat and listened to the speeches and studied the Occupiers. From my office I watched the makeshift marching band that was later mocked in the press. It started with a drum, vuvuzela and the voices of the sixty or seventy brave souls. Two, three times a day the march snaked through the Financial District. It looked and sounded shoddy. But then a few days later a trombone was added. Simple as it sounds, the addition of the horn section was a signature moment. All of a sudden the march had gravity, weight. I remember hearing it and thinking, wow, they’re really not backing down this time. 

The two consistent critical refrains lobbed against the occupiers are they don’t have any specific demands (only gripes) and that they’re hypocrites because they use Macs and drink Starbucks. We’ll get to the second criticism later on. For now let’s stick with the first one.  If you’d visited the park or witnessed those early marches that first week, you would’ve seen the Troy Davis signs. You would’ve known that he was a symbol of injustice. If only by default, Davis was probably the one cause that the protestors could initially come together around. I know this because the evening of Troy Davis’ scheduled execution I walked to City Hall Park and watched the Occupiers hold an impromptu rally/vigil in Davis’ honor and because less than 72 hours after Davis’ execution the Occupation’s first major confrontation with NYPD ensued. Eighty people were arrested. Footage of pepper sprayings, containments, and arrests went viral. 

Failing to connect the Occupiers willingness to challenge authority to Troy Davis’ death is naive. The “I am Troy Davis” moment presented a clear, convincing case of injustice. It indicted police corruption. It spotlighted the Supreme Court’s callousness. Most of all it made people aware of their powerlessness to prevent an unjust death even in a supposedly free, fair and democratic society.

More than three weeks into the Occupation and with outposts all over the map, finding a single demand that every Occupier can agree on as the priority may in fact be difficult. In the first week of the Occupation, however, anyone paying any attention knew that the demand to save Troy Davis was decisive and specific. And that it went ignored. 

2.

The day after the first round of mass arrests in Union Square I was on flight to California. After landing at LAX early Sunday morning I spent the afternoon and evening at a big box feeding and drinking trough in downtown L.A. I was surrounded by people stuffing themselves with burgers and beer. At every turn a steady stream of NFL action flowed through the hanging screens. Classic rock wafted just above the hum of chatter. It was as if everyone around me was under a strong sedative the main ingredient of which was nostalgia. How else could they stand idling away the day when a genuine resistance against corruption was emerging? It was a disorienting beginning to a nearly two week tour of the coast during which it became clear to me that most Americans still had no clue about what was bubbling and brewing back East. It all felt so far away, so unreal, that even as I devoured every article, blog, tweet, anything that appeared under the “Occupy” banner, I found myself questioning its existence. It’s probably fitting that the first person who I heard mention the Occupation was a grizzled Berkeley layabout holding a cardboard sign that read, “I’m too lazy to steal and too ugly to prostitute.”

“I’ve been saying go after the bankers for years,” he growled to no in particular. “But nobody listens to me. No, I’m just a crazy hippie!”

He was wrong, though. It may not seem that way today, but in the beginning nobody wanted to listen to the Occupiers either. Even now most of us still won’t allow ourselves the permission to dream of a world without widespread greed and corruption. Most of us are still resigned to just getting a piece of the pie. It’s understandable. Corruption and disillusionment rob our faith and steal our dreams.

This is where Steve Jobs fits in. In a rightly celebrated 2005 Stanford commencement address that has been viewed on Youtube some 10,000,000 times, Jobs talked about the inevitability of death and the urgency of life:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Occupy Wall Street is fundamentally about breaking free of the dogmatic thinking and policy making that has resulted in a wildly unjust social and economic order.

Jobs’ Stanford speech is one clear example of the renegade path a generation of tech outliers blazed for this generation of Occupiers. Jobs and his generation designed the world we all now operate within. At bottom, he and his contemporaries conceived a connected civilization and made it a reality that we all benefit from. But just as the Boomers used the technology their parents and grandparents created – television, print, telephone, radio – to challenge the wisdom and authority of their elders, so too are the Occupiers using the technology they’ve inherited to instigate and spread their generation’s discontent.

The complex dynamic between Jobs’ generation and the Millennials helps explain the Occupation’s lukewarm reaction to his passing. Yes, the Occupiers are, in effect, burning down their masters’ homes and looting the gadgets at the same time, but they are not doing it to be rebellious or supercilious. Their future demands an uprising against the current order. Make no mistake, the Occupiers are fighting for the survival of a way of life that, among other things, allowed a Steve Jobs to find his path, flourish, fail and flourish again.

Another wrinkle in the Occupation’s relationship with Jobs is his identity. Although he wore a different costume, he was still a symbol of the great (typically but not exclusively white) man theory of history. To argue otherwise when 78% of Fortune 500 hundred board seats and 73% of Fortune 100 board seats are “occupied” by white men is an act of pure denial. In life Jobs was regarded as a godlike leader of the digital frontier. In the days following his death one hagiographer after another tallied his achievements and made the case for his immediate entrance into the “great man” pantheon. A leaderless movement stands in direct contrast to the aggressively individualistic iconography that Steve Jobs symbolizes. By intentionally refusing to identify a charismatic leader and listing the corporate world’s perpetuation of “inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation” among its grievances, the occupation is actively resisting the deeply embedded biases that the current system reinforces and exploits for the benefit of the few.

Keeping the movement leaderless also evinces a shrewd understanding of revolutionary political movements. The Black Panther Party, for example, fell as quickly as it rose because of demagoguery. By publicly deposing the leadership and enlisting the mainstream media in its massive campaign to discredit the party, the movement the Panthers inspired disintegrated. Revolutionary corporations can afford demagogues. Revolutionary movements can not.

But something far more pragmatic may also be influencing the movement’s resistance to the traditional form of leadership Steve Jobs symbolized. As a generation, Millennials were educated unlike any cohort before them. Often labeled over-indulged trophy children, these young adults came of age at a time of collaborative education classrooms and community service graduation requirements. They are more ethnically diverse, less prejudiced and more open to change than any generation before them. Their resumes ripple with developing world study abroads and service learning experiences. Accordingly, for Millennials leadership means more than the traditional, assertive alpha-male whether he’s in a suit or jeans. That particularly potent American leadership archetype is fraught with racist, sexist, gender specific stereotypes that have landed us in the mess we’re in now.

And then there is Barack Obama.

Three years ago, Millennials led Obama’s charge for change. They campaigned. They blogged. They rallied. They made politics cool. And on election day, more than 66% of the Millennial cohort — the highest percentage of any generation — voted for Obama. Without the youth vote it’s unlikely that Obama would have been elected. Three years into his presidency that same generation is occupying cities across the country. And while they are savvy and astute enough to spread the blame and eschew the Obama bashing that characterized the Tea Party, the president’s failure to live up to the promise of his candidacy has not gone unnoticed or unaddressed by the Occupiers.

There was a time when the charismatic leader was necessary. There was also a time when the pinnacle of democracy was the ballot box. We are no longer in those times. Thanks to people like Steve Jobs we’ve had the opportunity to evolve at a more rapid pace than perhaps any time in history. Collaborative technology has allowed us to learn more about the world in less time than ever. We can be instantaneously immersed with the zeitgeist. We can organize hundreds of occupation zones in less than a month. But just as we’ve evolved and adapted, we need our institutions to evolve as well. Whether its the death penalty, the tax code or banking laws, our systems and practices are obsolete. A state can no longer send an innocent person to the death chamber without undermining its authority and legitimacy. A bank can no longer create bogus fees out of thin air in order to meet its quarterly profit projections and keep it shareholders happy. Its corruption will be exposed and picked apart.

In as much as average citizens have become accustomed to being inspected, rated and judged by powerful institutions, those institutions must now adapt to a similar kind of scrutiny and, if need be, correction from below. If democracy is to survive it must remain dynamic. Citizen oversight, pressure and correction is the next evolution of democracy. And now that the public has the tools to connect and organize without interference, it is beginning to awaken to its power. In a sense, you could say the Occupiers are the modern manifestation of Frankenstein’s monster.

3.

Toward the end of my California trip I learned about Occupy San Francisco and the planned occupations in Oakland and Berkeley. Occupy Dallas and Boston and D.C. had already kicked into gear. Members of Congress had pledged their qualified support. When The New York Times reported that trade unions were formally joining the Occupiers, I knew the movement was entering a new phase. I arrived back in New York the day of Steve Jobs’ death. The next afternoon I visited Zuccotti Park. Two weeks may as well have been like light years. The park was packed with people engaged in teach-ins, art workshops, and dance circles. The once sparse gathering had morphed into a dense cloud of righteous complaint. Every issue was welcome. Every voice had a home. The thread tying the battalion’s cries together was the “I am the 99%” slogan. To declare one’s struggle to the world is powerful and empowering. It says there is no shame in poverty and unemployment. The shame belongs to the 1% who have usurped the public’s wealth and undermined its institutions. The collective outpouring is a necessary phase in the awakening. But as I walked through the park I noted all of the cameras and microphones and curious observers and I knew the initial innocent chapter had closed.

My concern is that without more focus and direction the fractious, delicate movement could quickly devolve into spectacle and theater. I worry that widespread support for the Occupation won’t budge beyond the hard-scrabble s.o.s.’s punctuated with the “I am the 99%” refrain flooding the web. The 21 days between the deaths of Troy Davis and Steve Jobs was an initial awakening for many who’ve tacitly or actively joined the Occupation movement. It was the period during which people discovered how many others were being screwed and in how many ways. The next phase will require more than anger. Said Jobs in his Stanford address,

Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

Steve Jobs and his generation had the courage to dream about a world that didn’t yet exist and the certainty to pursue it relentlessly. Whether it’s of self, of liberty, of country or of humanity, only love will supply the Occupiers with the courage and certainty to dream of the world they want, and to pursue it against all odds.

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