Public Sphere

A Year On: Occupy L.A. And God

On November 17 of last year, the two-month anniversary of the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, I found myself singing and dancing to a Hassidic tune in downtown Los Angeles's Bank of America plaza. I was among more than a hundred protestors from Occupy L.A., and facing a phalanx of police with riot equipment. Singing and dancing seemed the most appropriate thing to do at that time in that place.

The Occupy movement tapped into a general rage at the disparities in income and the outsize place that money had in politics and legislation. What was perhaps surprising was that the movement was also imbued consciously or not with many deeply religious motifs. I connected with OLA, along with several co-conspirators, a few weeks after the encampment began on the Sukkot holiday. We connected the moving out into the fragility of our sukkot with the fragile but strong community being created in the grass of City Hall park.

Our initial gathering morphed into the Interfaith Sanctuary at OLA. Our sukkah became the meeting place for all manner of worship services and a place where we could gather as a group of faith leaders from a variety of traditions and attempt to be of service to this budding movement

OLA was not a religious movement. Some of the leadership and folks of OLA were deeply suspicious of religious involvement. We were also embraced by others in the leadership of this leaderless movement. It took me some time, however, to realize that the movement as a whole had deep religious significance.

The basic claim of Occupy—as opposed to the specific complaints and demands of Occupy—was that the way to a more just union was through citizens (and those who were citizens by dint of their participation) gathering and deliberating about the needs of the country, and the needs of the specific movement community that they were a part of.

The idea that the arc of history is bent ever so slightly more towards the path of justice by discussion and dialogue among the people, that every person has an equal right to hear and be heard and that the discussion should go on until that happens reflects a deep belief in the idea that each of us is created in the image of God. Therefore our dignity is not dependent on a grant from anyone outside of ourselves.

The corporatist mentality that greater wealth is a sign of greater moral worth and value; that money should be granted rights of speech and that corporations are also people, erases and ignores the image of God in which everyone is created.

The spiritual question that Occupy raised is whether we are to look for the voice of God in the voice of the people, or we are to revert to an oracular conception of access to Divine wisdom in which the one who controls the oracle, controls the word of God. Radical democracy is also an argument for an egalitarian spirituality, an imminent and accessible divinity which needs no intermediates.

And so, on that Thursday afternoon in Bank of America plaza, we were witness to the playing out of these two forces. The Occupiers had set up tents on the "public land" which belonged to Bank of America, demanding redress of grievances. The police were at the beck and call of the Bank as to whether to let the tents stand and the Occupiers stay. Inevitably, the corporation demanded its rights and deployed the city’s police to arrest the protestors. The overwhelming force of the government worked at the behest of private capital and carted away the nuisance. What made more sense than to sing a niggun, a tune of longing and exaltation?