Shen Tong is Occupy Wall Street’s philosopher in residence. "I’m a philosopher and don’t talk about big demands—I just facilitate them," he says. To do that, he draws on decades of his participation in social movements, including, notably, as a media organizer in the democracy movement in China. "Not only was I shot at in 1989 at Tiananmen," Tong says, "but some of my colleagues are still in jail." The movement failed, he says, and he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to today’s Occupiers: "I look at the world and the lack of social and economic justice, and I believe America can be relevant again."
Co.Exist: Fundamentally, what is the Occupy movement about?
Shen Tong: The important thing is that Zuccotti Square is not Tiananmen Square. Occupy Wall Street is a movement of values, not a movement about legislation and demands, as such. It’s demanding that citizens step up because we’re in trouble, and the established powers can’t fix the problem. The movement stands for the need for a fundamental, bottom-up shakeup.
Has the movement been achieving that? And how do you measure its success?
Like any big, new thing, there’s pure luck involved. The movement is in its infancy—it’s an extremely healthy baby. It has a healthy set of lungs and cries very loudly and effectively. But it’s still a baby and is developing its own personality and evolving. It will succeed if it behaves like an infinite, online network. If you can find a group that manages the whole thing, then we’ve already failed.
With horizontal decision-making and transparency both so important to the movement, do you think it would have been possible without the Internet, which greatly facilitates both?
Absolutely. But the Internet really helps shape a dominant culture that makes this kind of thinking much easier. There’s a myth that we can use the Internet and all of this can just happen. Yes, the Internet has been huge for getting information across, and I can’t imagine a lot of things could happen this fast without the Internet and levels of connectedness, like social search. But the importance of face-to-face contact cannot be underestimated.
What has your work in broadcast media and, now, the Internet taught you about how to successfully organize people and facilitate important conversations?
When I look at the last 10 years and the three companies and one foundation I started, I see that a lot of the success hasn’t come from traditional education—it came from a critique of that, from my social movement background. My playbook now is from the development of the Internet. That’s sort of the new organizing principle. So as familiar as this movement is, it’s totally new in some senses. It’s almost like a new artistic style, where all the elements may look familiar but are organized differently. It’s a style that says "To lead a movement you have to be a service point in a very fast-growing network that is, by design, decentralized."
It’s been almost three months since Occupy Wall Street officially started, and, despite evictions from demonstrators’ encampments across the country, it’s still going strong. What’s been the biggest challenge about keeping it going?
We don’t know what we’re doing! How to have a proactive agenda of some kind without event-based protesting is new for us. We need to mobilize beyond moments. That part is tough, but it’s exciting.
Are the constant call for demands frustrating?
People need to understand that there’s not going to be a cohesive set of demands like we’re accustomed to. There’s a deliberate effort to not be quickly part of an identifiable band of the political spectrum. The movement has demands—it has too many. But because there are no channels for the substance of the demands to get through, the number one demand has become to shape up the system. The movement has provided the energy for civil society groups to proactively have demands and endorse this moment by acting.
It’s not the movement’s job to have demands. If you think you’re part of the 99 percent, it’s your job; you should do your part to endorse this movement. You know what your demands are, so do it for your own constituency. Congress, legislate for the 99 percent. Congress, occupy your agenda with the right items and demands. Labor unions, do what you’re supposed to do for your members. Civil society groups, be more effective, and don’t just sleep and then collect your dues and raise money during Christmas. I’m not trivializing their effort, but they need to have their agendas help the 99 percent.
On a more personal level, what are the occupiers struggling with?
I can’t say this without crying: These people are hurt badly. They thought they were going to highlight a dysfunctional democracy and the social and economic injustice that’s in front of us, but they didn’t know they’d have to fight for their first amendment rights. Thousands of people are in jail, and many more have been beaten. And now they don’t have time to heal. It took me 10 years and the birth of my oldest daughter to allow myself to cry and get over the trauma of Tiananmen and really talk about it. So right now, the work that’s most needed here is healing—it’s not getting stuff done. It’s taking care of yourself, organizing yourself before organizing others. It’s putting the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on your children.
Why now? What made us suddenly open our eyes to social and economic injustice?
I don’t know, but thank god it happened. It took 30 years, but thank goodness it happened.