Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why Occupy Worcester belongs in the Commons

This is Part II of a column submitted to Worcester InCity Times, Oct 21, 2011:

On Monday night, Oct. 17, at a meeting in the Commons, the Occupy Worcester General Assembly discussed where to stage the Occupation, and the first choice was the Commons itself, a 300-year-old park behind City Hall.

The Worcester Commons is a place where people from all parts of Worcester would see us. It is surrounded by symbols of power - City Hall, bank buildings, State and Federal offices and the regional daily newspaper.

“Occupying the Commons” symbolizes the idea of moving the conversations that have been going on around millions of kitchen tables and barbecue pits all across America “into the commons”, with a goal of drawing us all – the 99% - together into a larger conversation. It is an attempt to create a “democratic space” where we can find each other and escape from the illusion that we are separate, outnumbered and on our own.

But beyond that, the Worcester Commons is a place with a huge historical significance - one we have every right to claim as our own! For it was one of the great stages on which the largely-forgotten drama of our American Revolution played out.

Much of the story of that drama, as reconstructed by historian Ray Raphael, was found in the vaults of the Worcester City Hall. In Raphael’s words:

"During the late summer of 1774, each time a court was slated to meet under British authority in some Massachusetts town, great numbers of angry citizens made sure it did not. These patriots were furious because they had just been disenfranchised by the Massachusetts Government Act. … They feared that arbitrary rulers might soon seize their tools, their livestock, or even their farms.

"Worcester was at the center of this massive uprising. It was the patriots of Worcester who first called for a meeting of several counties to coordinate the resistance. It was at Worcester, on September 6, 1774, that the British conceded control of the countryside."

Unlike the storybook version of the Revolution, the one Raphael uncovered was not a conspiracy led by wealthy merchants, not an armed uprising, not a war. It was a profoundly democratic and largely nonviolent movement. The war came later when the British tried to reverse that revolution by armed force.

The Occupations are in the same spirit. They are very reminiscent of the seemingly endless debates and messy decision-making processes of 1774 as described by Raphael. Those debates spread to nearly every church, tavern and town commons in Massachusetts. By October 1774, when the Provisional Assembly met in Concord to form a new government, he estimates that nearly the entire population of Massachusetts had participated in this “direct democracy”, and well over 90% were in full support.

On Sept. 6, 1774, according to the archives in the Worcester City Hall, 4,722 unarmed militia from 37 towns in Worcester assembled in the Worcester Commons to stop the meeting of the Courts, an arm of what the people had come to see as an illegitimate government. In a profoundly democratic process that lasted all day and in which every person present participated, they negotiated the terms of surrender of the court officials.

Like the Occupations today, the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774 had no prominent leaders, no special heroes, several scary face-offs with the British but no armed battles, and there is no record through the whole Summer and Fall of 1774 of any violent deaths.

The Occupations are the true heirs of that Revolution, beginning anew a great mass discussion by all the people - the 99% - of what to do about a government and institutions that are failing us and have lost their legitimacy.

The Worcester Commons would be a very special place for that!
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