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Is the Occupy Movement Prophetic?

The Occupy movement, which began in September in New York's Liberty Square and has since spread throughout the country, has a vibrant outpost at Dewey Square in Boston. Last week, UU World editor Chris Walton, Beacon Press Associate Publisher Tom Hallock, Beacon Broadside editor Jessie Bennett, and author Dan McKanan visited the protest on a rainy afternoon. We spoke with protestors, visited the library and donated a few Beacon Press books, and filmed this interview while we were there. 

Dan McKanan is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. He is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.

Be sure to read Dan McKanan's article, "The Spiritual Heritage of the Occupy Movement," at

1315Chris Walton: Your book highlights the religious dimensions of the long history of radical movements in America, and it came out just as Occupy Wall Street was going up in New York. Where would you place the Occupy movement in the American radical tradition? 

Dan McKanan: When I think of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston, I think all the way back to the 1820s when working people gathered at First Universalist Church in Philadelphia. Wealthy people were consolidating economic activity, and they saw this is a betrayal of the American vision of equality and freedom, and they organized what they called the Working Man's Party. People had a common identity as workers and needed to exercise political power in proportion to that. So this same theme of the ninety-nine and the one is something that's deeply rooted in our history and we have many predecessors to draw inspiration from as we do the work today.

Chris Walton: What's different about Occupy? Is there a way in which it's unlike previous progressive movements?

Dan McKanan: The kind of blending on the ethos of the 1930s, when many people were out of work, many people were struggling and organized around that, with the ethos of the 1960s, when college students especially were benefiting from the great economic growth of the previous couple of decades, and were saying, "How can we make sure that that economic prosperity is shared widely?" Now we're seeing a period where all those economic gains of the post-war period are being lost, but we still have that legacy of student activism, so we have chance for really exciting alliances between student activists and persons experiencing homelessness or persons experiencing unemployment... really the whole spectrum.

Chris Walton: I want to ask about the two words in your title. The first one is "prophetic." What do you mean by "prophetic" and how is something like Occupy a "prophetic" movement?

Dan McKanan: When I think of the word "prophesy," I think a lot about the ways people are transformed by their encounters with the divine. And I want to suggest that something like that happens here and happened in the Montgomery bus boycott, happened among abolitionists--white and black people standing together to end slavery. When people encounter one another deeply, when they find the power that they have in fighting against oppression, there's something spiritually transformative about that, something like religious conversion, and I want to celebrate that.

Chris Walton: The other word in your title is "encounters." It clearly has religious dimensions in your book, the way that you use it. In your last chapter, you talk about how the anti-globalization movement, which would seem to be a pretty direct forerunner of this, was more focused on resistance than on encounter. What do you mean when you talk about encounter as a religious term in a political movement?

Dan McKanan: There are three kinds of encounters that have occurred in different social justice movements in U.S. history that are really important.

The first is the kind of encounter--I call it the encounter of identity--when people who've been oppressed, who've been marginalized, come together, share their stories, and claim some sort of new identity. When persons who had been enslaved in this country began calling themselves "African" and prizing that identity. When working people said, "We are working men, we're working people and we're proud of that." That's the kind of encounter of identity.

The second kind of encounter happens when persons of relative privilege see the power that's being generated amongst communities of the oppressed and say, "We want to have a piece of that," and they identify with one particular individual who embodies that. So a lot of people had their lives transformed by the individuality of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X during the 1960s.

And then there are also the kinds of encounters that happen when people immerse themselves in communities in struggle: Catholic Worker houses, settlement houses, people going on pilgrimage to base communities in Latin America, all these are more collective sorts of encounter.

One of the things that happened I think among radical movements in the past thirty years is that we saw an upsurge in a conservative movement in this country, of a sort that was almost unprecedented, and radicals put more and more emphasis on resisting or defeating the Right. So you saw a resurgent religious right, and people said the best we can do is to hold them at bay. There was this motif of resistance and maybe something of a loss of utopian thinking, a loss of really imagining what the alternative would look like. And the way I think we get to that positive vision is through encounter. And so what's really exciting for me about the occupy movement is there's space. People are not just coming to one-off demonstration, they're spending deep time together, developing practices of participatory democracy, sharing the wisdom of tradition and the wisdom of right now in a way that I think will help us to imagine what a world beyond the hyper-capitalist reality we have now could be.