Occupy Wall Street: The Most Important Thing in the
Naomi Klein | October 6, 2011
The Nation (http://www.thenation.com)
I was honored to be invited to speak at Occupy Wall
Street on Thursday night. Since amplification is
(disgracefully) banned, and everything I say will have
to be repeated by hundreds of people so others can hear
(aka "the human microphone"), what I actually say at
Liberty Plaza will have to be very short. With that in
mind, here is the longer, uncut version of the speech.
I love you.
And I didn't just say that so that hundreds of you
would shout "I love you" back, though that is obviously
a bonus feature of the human microphone. Say unto
others what you would have them say unto you, only way
Yesterday, one of the speakers at the labor rally said:
"We found each other." That sentiment captures the
beauty of what is being created here. A wide-open space
(as well as an idea so big it can't be contained by any
space) for all the people who want a better world to
find each other. We are so grateful.
If there is one thing I know, it is that the 1 percent
loves a crisis. When people are panicked and desperate
and no one seems to know what to do, that is the ideal
time to push through their wish list of pro-corporate
policies: privatizing education and social security,
slashing public services, getting rid of the last
constraints on corporate power. Amidst the economic
crisis, this is happening the world over.
And there is only one thing that can block this tactic,
and fortunately, it's a very big thing: the 99 percent.
And that 99 percent is taking to the streets from
Madison to Madrid to say "No. We will not pay for your
That slogan began in Italy in 2008. It ricocheted to
Greece and France and Ireland and finally it has made
its way to the square mile where the crisis began.
"Why are they protesting?" ask the baffled pundits on
TV. Meanwhile, the rest of the world asks: "What took
you so long?" "We've been wondering when you were going
to show up." And most of all: "Welcome."
Many people have drawn parallels between Occupy Wall
Street and the so-called anti-globalization protests
that came to world attention in Seattle in 1999. That
was the last time a global, youth-led, decentralized
movement took direct aim at corporate power. And I am
proud to have been part of what we called "the movement
But there are important differences too. For instance,
we chose summits as our targets: the World Trade
Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the G8.
Summits are transient by their nature, they only last a
week. That made us transient too. We'd appear, grab
world headlines, then disappear. And in the frenzy of
hyper patriotism and militarism that followed the 9/11
attacks, it was easy to sweep us away completely, at
least in North America.
Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, has chosen a
fixed target. And you have put no end date on your
presence here. This is wise. Only when you stay put can
you grow roots. This is crucial. It is a fact of the
information age that too many movements spring up like
beautiful flowers but quickly die off. It's because
they don't have roots. And they don't have long term
plans for how they are going to sustain themselves. So
when storms come, they get washed away.
Being horizontal and deeply democratic is wonderful.
But these principles are compatible with the hard work
of building structures and institutions that are sturdy
enough to weather the storms ahead. I have great faith
that this will happen.
Something else this movement is doing right: You have
committed yourselves to non-violence. You have refused
to give the media the images of broken windows and
street fights it craves so desperately. And that
tremendous discipline has meant that, again and again,
the story has been the disgraceful and unprovoked
police brutality. Which we saw more of just last night.
Meanwhile, support for this movement grows and grows.
But the biggest difference a decade makes is that in
1999, we were taking on capitalism at the peak of a
frenzied economic boom. Unemployment was low, stock
portfolios were bulging. The media was drunk on easy
money. Back then it was all about start-ups, not
We pointed out that the deregulation behind the frenzy
came at a price. It was damaging to labor standards. It
was damaging to environmental standards. Corporations
were becoming more powerful than governments and that
was damaging to our democracies. But to be honest with
you, while the good times rolled, taking on an economic
system based on greed was a tough sell, at least in
Ten years later, it seems as if there aren't any more
rich countries. Just a whole lot of rich people. People
who got rich looting the public wealth and exhausting
natural resources around the world.
The point is, today everyone can see that the system is
deeply unjust and careening out of control. Unfettered
greed has trashed the global economy. And it is
trashing the natural world as well. We are overfishing
our oceans, polluting our water with fracking and
deepwater drilling, turning to the dirtiest forms of
energy on the planet, like the Alberta tar sands. And
the atmosphere cannot absorb the amount of carbon we
are putting into it, creating dangerous warming. The
new normal is serial disasters: economic and
These are the facts on the ground. They are so blatant,
so obvious, that it is a lot easier to connect with the
public than it was in 1999, and to build the movement
We all know, or at least sense, that the world is
upside down: we act as if there is no end to what is
actually finite--fossil fuels and the atmospheric space
to absorb their emissions. And we act as if there are
strict and immovable limits to what is actually
bountiful--the financial resources to build the kind of
society we need.
The task of our time is to turn this around: to
challenge this false scarcity. To insist that we can
afford to build a decent, inclusive society--while at
the same time, respect the real limits to what the
earth can take.
What climate change means is that we have to do this on
a deadline. This time our movement cannot get
distracted, divided, burned out or swept away by
events. This time we have to succeed. And I'm not
talking about regulating the banks and increasing taxes
on the rich, though that's important.
I am talking about changing the underlying values that
govern our society. That is hard to fit into a single
media-friendly demand, and it's also hard to figure out
how to do it. But it is no less urgent for being
That is what I see happening in this square. In the way
you are feeding each other, keeping each other warm,
sharing information freely and proving health care,
meditation classes and empowerment training. My
favorite sign here says, "I care about you." In a
culture that trains people to avoid each other's gaze,
to say, "Let them die," that is a deeply radical
A few final thoughts. In this great struggle, here are
some things that don't matter.
S What we wear.
S Whether we shake our fists or make peace signs.
S Whether we can fit our dreams for a better world into
a media soundbite.
And here are a few things that do matter.
S Our courage.
S Our moral compass.
S How we treat each other.
We have picked a fight with the most powerful economic
and political forces on the planet. That's frightening.
And as this movement grows from strength to strength,
it will get more frightening. Always be aware that
there will be a temptation to shift to smaller
targets--like, say, the person sitting next to you at
this meeting. After all, that is a battle that's easier
Don't give in to the temptation. I'm not saying don't
call each other on shit. But this time, let's treat
each other as if we plan to work side by side in
struggle for many, many years to come. Because the task
before will demand nothing less.
Let's treat this beautiful movement as if it is most
important thing in the world. Because it is. It really
Editor's Note: Naomi's speech also appeared in
Saturday's edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal.
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