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Is #OccupyWallStreet a "Church of Dissent"?


Janine Giordano Drake

Last week, political blogger Matt Stroller penned an article about #OccupyWallStreet that I can’t get off my mind. First, he introduced the movement as a groundswell of frustration. Said he,

…it’s obvious that this isn’t just about Wall Street, nor is it really a battle of any sort. There are political signs there attacking Fox News, expressing anger about Troy Davis, supporting the Iranian revolution, urging the Federal Reserve be reigned in, and demanding rich people pay their taxes. There are personal signs about debt, war, and medical problems. And people are dressed in costume, carrying lightsabers, and some guys are driving around a truck with a “Top Secret Wikileaks” sign on the side. I asked if they were affiliated with the site, and one of them responded with “That’s what the Secret Service asked”. Most of all, people there are having fun.

However–that, of course, sounded just like the reports I have been getting from friends involved in the movement in New York City. The provoking part was the sentence that followed. He went on,

What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, “we matter”. (emphasis mine)

Stroller explained, quite eloquently, “the act of politicization” and the way that such public protests build the cultural infrastructure of social movements. However, he said that this movement “is a somewhat different animal than other politicized gatherings,” because many protesters participated and carried on not because of a common political goal, but “because it feels meaningful.” I gather what he means is that “the 99%,” as the protesters call themselves, find meaning in the act of gathering; together, they recognize that regular people without much money or relative power are ubiquitous, and together can gain the attention that they cannot as individuals. The movement’s website, “We are the 99 percent,” certainly affirms this claim.

“Meaning is a fundamental human need,” the author went on, and #OccupyWallStreet is beginning to provide a moral community for people in search of one. In the call and response character of chants, the “consensus-based ‘general assemblies,’” the fear of official spokespeople, and the high importance of caring for and appreciating one another, he said, this movement is quite similar to a dissenting religious body. He invited readers, too, to understand the movement not as a success or failure, but as an attempt of frustrated people to find meaning through community.

I would argue that this characteristic makes #OccupyWallStreet not unique among American political movements, but absolutely commonplace. What political movement has ever been accomplished in this country (or any country) without a groundswell of moral (or so-called moral) indignation to get its name on the map? I find Stroller’s boldness in dignifying this protest as a “church” both unusual and refreshing.

All week long I have been asking myself, What does it do for historians and journalists to label such a movement moral, or religious? Why have so many historians been hesitant to recognize/ identify the moral/religious characteristics of “people’s movements” to date? And, of course, Is #OccupyWallStreet a “religious” movement, even if it is a moral movement?

Perhaps part of what happens when we label this a “Church of Dissent” is dignify the movement for what it is not. It is *not* a rioting group of people bent on destruction for its own sake. A moral community has a goal and cares as much about process as it does about outcomes. But, what do you think– does the term “church” have too much baggage to be used here?

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