A little over a week ago, Selecting Stones had the opportunity to visit the protesters at Occupy Tulsa. After talking with a few of the participants at the small downtown encampment in Oklahoma’s second largest city, we came away with a strong impression, and a much clearer understanding of the stakes involved in the Occupy movement than we were able to obtain in DC or New York. For the Occupy movement to develop its potential, it must move beyond the narrow stance of the original Occupy Wall Street into the uncharted waters represented by Occupy Oakland, but also, in a different way, by Occupy Tulsa.
The Occupy Tulsa group is small. When we visited on a Saturday afternoon, there were two to three dozen people in attendance, with the group divided more or less equally between those holding signs, those battling the wind to set up tents, and those sitting around and discussing the future of American capitalism. The group has been holding its ground in a one-block area of green space officially known as Centennial Greek Park, which the occupiers have renamed Solidarity Square. This move — highly symbolic, though with practical implications — is modeled directly on Occupy Wall Street itself, where protesters have renamed Zuccotti Park to Liberty Square (which is, in turn, named after Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt). Here at Selecting Stones, we prefer the new name chosen by the Tulsans over that of the New Yorkers, because Solidarity, we say, is a far less vague concept than Liberty.
This particular example demonstrates a general rule: Occupy Tulsa is more focused on concrete reality than Occupy Wall Street, which is still unfortunately characterized by nebulous daydreams, meaningless slogans, and drum circles. When we visited Occupy Wall Street, we had a number of engaging conversations on the nature of capitalism and other topics with several bystanders at Zuccotti Park. However, when we talked with the actual participants of the occupation, we found that, in general, these men and women had a nasty tendency to cry out vague platitudes, or to show off their mastery of buzzwords gleaned from graduate courses on obscure French poststructuralist philosophers, rather than to discuss the real matter at hand.
In striking contrast, at Occupy Tulsa, the participants with whom we spoke preferred to chat about such topics as the root causes of unemployment, the legal problems inherent in corporate personhood, the role of banks in global commerce, and the differences between capitalist and socialist societies. We had a particularly enlightening conversation with one occupier who advocated a return of the repealed Glass-Steagall Act as a practical, concrete way to reign in the unmanageable American banking system. We then engaged in a meaningful debate on whether a return of Glass-Steagall could actually cure the ills of American capitalism, or whether it would be, at best, a temporary bandage. On some points we agreed, and on other points we disagreed, but we managed to work toward a consensus in the end. The important point, though, is that the conversation even happened in the first place. Sadly, meaningful and intelligent discussions of the issues are often difficult to come by at Occupy Wall Street, but, to its credit, Occupy Tulsa offered up a bountiful supply. And the man whom we talked to about Glass-Steagall was not simply a fluke. One woman was conducting a brief survey on the Tulsan occupiers’ motivations, and the immediate issues which concerned them the most. She kindly allowed us to peruse her results, and we noticed that many respondents had taken the time to write in brief but thoughtful comments on the issues of the day. As it so happened, Glass-Steagall came up a lot. The occupiers in Tulsa are remarkable in that they have actually done their homework. They had read up on the issues that they were fighting for, and we took this as something of a breath of fresh air, after having talked to so many in Zuccotti Park who clearly had not done their homework.
Last week, a classic “troll” on Occupy Tulsa’s Facebook page attacked the group with the familiar accusation that the occupiers amount to nothing more than a bunch of crybabies whining that their jobs don’t pay well enough to supply a constant stream of new Apple iPads and Starbuck’s double-mocha half-soy, half-skim lattés. Indeed, there is a great deal of substance to these allegations when one is speaking of Zuccotti Park, and Selecting Stones has commented extensively in other articles on the dangers inherent in the upper-middle-class, “yuppie” character of Occupy Wall Street. But the accusation simply doesn’t apply in Tulsa. For what it’s worth, we feel compelled to mention that, during our visit to Solidarity Square, there was not a single Apple Computer product in sight, and the coffee available did not come from Starbuck’s. Interpret those facts however you may.
Recently, Occupy Wall Street has quite rightfully received some bad press over its relationship with New York City’s homeless population. Some in Zuccotti Park have grown concerned over the fact that a lot of hungry and cold homeless people have cleverly discovered the free food and blankets to be had at the occupation. These horrible fools have claimed that something needs to be done to prevent the homeless from “stealing” the occupiers’ food and shelter. Is it really possible that the “anti-greed” protesters of Occupy Wall Street would look down on the homeless as “thieves”?!?! Thankfully, these wretches are in the minority of the movement, but the issue nevertheless raises vital questions about the character of Occupy Wall Street. Who are these people? And who are they really looking out for? In contrast, Occupy Tulsa stated last Thursday on its Facebook page that the movement had succeeded in feeding and clothing over 100 of Tulsa’s homeless since it began. Once again, we see a concrete sign that Occupy Tulsa has a better idea of where its priorities really lie than does Occupy Wall Street. And the attitude that, if all else fails, at least Occupy Tulsa was able to help out of few homeless people is truly admirable.
The men and women at Occupy Tulsa are for real. The group is small, but it is serious. And since seriousness is the main virtue that the original Occupy Wall Street unfortunately lacks, we must conclude that Occupy Tulsa — in spite of its small size — is a few concrete steps ahead of its predecessor in New York.
There are many more aspects of Occupy Tulsa that would be worthwhile to cover. For instance, we haven’t even spoken of the movement’s courageous standoff with the Tulsa Police. We also haven’t mentioned the group’s battle with Tulsa’s city council over obtaining the legal right to occupy, and, remarkably, the group’s ability to criticize itself on its own website, asking whether it might be losing sight of its goal by spending so much time on the minutiae of legalism and curfew regulations in city parks. (Self-criticism is another thing sorely lacking in Zuccotti Park.) All these things would be worth discussing at length, but we will save them for another time, because we have already made our point. We most likely don’t agree on every point with every person at Occupy Tulsa, but we greatly admire their ability to maintain a cool-headed seriousness, and their refusal to turn their protest into the circus sideshow that, all too often, Occupy Wall Street tends to become. The future, we contend, belongs more to Solidarity Square than it does to Liberty Square. It’s just really a shame that there aren’t more people out there. Hopefully they’ll grow.
Keep up the good work, Occupy Tulsa!