The weather was great yesterday, and the lower part of Manhattan clear and crisp in the November sun. At Zucotti Park, the members of Occupy Wall Street (“members” is not a good word, it is not a membership movement) were serving Thanksgiving dinners to whomever wanted to partake of it. Individually wrapped meals (packaged in accordance with the city’s health authorities’ specifications) combined all the traditional Thanksgiving foods, including some for vegetarians. 4000 meals were prepared in various kitchens opened to volunteers by private and business places. Though there were no tables (forbidden!), the place was cheerful, some were singing, and when the police descended in force to silence a drummer the confrontation was verbal rather than physical. Lots and lots of people were milling around — occupiers, supporters, tourists, journalists. All looked calm and smiling, though the square was surrounded by police wielding military, lethal-looking equipment. A white booth on stilts was moving up and down, like a robot from Star Wars. But there were no helicopters overhead, and the policemen who descended into the crowd had only their truncheons. There was a lot to be thankful for.
I did not eat that meal, knowing that there were other people more in need of free food, but I milled around, sang (self-consciously) some of the old civil rights songs (drumming is a search for new music for the movement) and joined the crowd around the policemen trying to arrest the lonely drummer. Another drummer some distance away was left undisturbed. I realised that I did not know how to refer to the people who stay there and who initiated the occupation. Then I heard a speech by Michael Moore, and I learned what to call them: occupiers. The movement, he said, changed a lot of things, one of them being the meaning of the word “to occupy”. The United States were occupying Iraq, he said, we were occupied by Wall Street; now it is our turn to occupy. Wherever we are, he said, we are occupying it, it is ours. I was instantly reminded of other words that were first negative and then given a new meaning by history. It was to denigrate Emile Zola and the anti-Dreyfusards that the word, then an invective, “intellectuals” was created. It was Adam Michnik who in Otwock introduced himself to a crowd as an “anti-socialist element”, giving this term a positive twist. We can now use the verb “to occupy” in its new meaning. It is a peaceful, nonviolent taking back of public space. A good thing.
The change of the meaning in the word so burdened with negative connotation would not be possible without a general change of mood in the country. Let me quote Michael Moore again: the movement brought “the alleviation of despair”. New topics of political conversation pushed out the slogans that till yesterday crowded out issues of poverty, homelessness, income disparities, ecological destruction. Even the Republican candidates for presidency now mention economic inequalities. Some elements of reality leaked into the highest political sphere, occupied (in the old sense of the word) by Wall Street as it is. It was a great Thanksgiving. Better than last year’s, and boding well for the future.