At Tuesday’s press conference at Occupy Edmonton, the question that the press was most eager to ask was, And how many of you are actually camping at the square?
That question was so important to them, I suspect, because they wanted to be able to declare that the “movement” is really only four, ten, twelve, twenty people — whatever number they could get out of us.
It’s easier, of course, to dismiss a powerful, growing force when you can believe that only a few people constitute it. It’s easier because then you can turn off the TV after watching the late-night local news coverage convinced that it doesn’t matter that you are not amongst them. They don’t matter, it doesn’t matter, you can sleep well.
When I heard that question so insistently asked, I thought about the power of numbers, and how we reflect the power of a few — the power that a mighty few combined — can wield. And perhaps because I was raised as a Catholic my mind turns first to the number twelve. I’ve already noted the importance of an historic twelve in an earlier post. (See Organizing Thoughts 9.)
I also think of the power of twelve as manifest in the form of the common law jury.
There’s something of enduring magic, too, about seven, and amongst the examples of how stories attempt to harness that power we can think of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) or John Sayles’ The Secaucus Seven (1980). That’s just two examples quick-to-hand from modern film. I’m sure you can think of others. We can certainly all cast our minds back to Snow White and her seven dwarfs!
Because I’m a Shakespearean I cannot help but also think of one of the two most stirring speeches in the entire Shakespeare canon. Its competitor is the speech by John of Gaunt in Richard II on England as the “sceptred Isle,” a “precious stone, set in the silver sea,” which is the “earth of Majesty” and “seat of Mars,” a “demi paradise” that has given birth to a “happy breed of men.” Shakespeare’s conception of that “happy breed” has a lot to do with their fierce commitment to the political power of the many.
In the more famous of his stirring speeches, Shakespeare writes of the power of that many embodied in a ‘happy few,’ as one of his most popular characters, Hal or Henry V, responds to the statement from one of his noblemen that he wishes that they had amongst them, as they prepared for the Battle of Agincourt in France, “But one ten thousand of those men in England, / That do no work today.”
You can listen to Kenneth Branagh’s stirring handling of it in more than one video on youtube. Here’s some of what Hal has to say:
. . . No, my fair Cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our Country loss: and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will, I pray thee wish not one man more.
. . .
This story shall the good man teach his son:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’re go by,
From this day to the ending of the World,
But we in it shall be rememb’red;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
. . .
Sure, the speech, given as a prelude to a physical battle, is more than a little macho. But it is most importantly a speech about what a few, a very few, can do if they ‘band’ together. That’s why the phrasing, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” is so famous. And that’s partly why I asked Edmonton Journal journalist David Staples to think about the phrase when I wrote my response to the piece he wrote for the Journal dismissing the group after the press conference. In my view, the fewer of us that were sleeping at the camp, the more valorous those few were. And the more we all owe them.
But the number, the magic number, I’m really thinking about today is the number three. I think about in relation to the statement from Matthew 18, “where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am amongst them.” (Once a Catholic, always a Catholic!) But I also think about it in relation to a mythical trio that recurs in Shakespeare’s work, the three mothers of the cult of the mothers. (They’re the iconic figures behind the weird sisters in Macbeth, and the female characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
The pan-European cult of the mothers, which predates Christianity, centers on these three figures as figures for the holding of the fruits of harvest in common. And I think of them when I think of Occupy Edmonton’s special ’happy few,’ our magic three — Chris Dunne, Josh Sealy, and Bill Thomas — who stood up on our behalf, and refused to leave the square at 102nd Street and Jasper Avenue when the police rolled in at about 4:30 in the morning. They had to be carried out of the square. They were carried to jail. And here they are, as they presented themselves, having taken action on all of our behalves, upon their release:
Josh, Chris, Bill: you are my brothers. You are also my honorary ‘sisters,’ for you would help us recover a world not dominated by the aggressive, proprietary snatching of a few, but rather shaped by those who would hold the fruits of harvest in common, so we can build a better, more just world from our shared wealth. You stand for another way of being men, and the world we all might create. And for what you did last night, for us all, I wish for you ‘the greater share of honour.’
And for those of you who have yet to join us at General Assembly, please join us tonight at the Main Cafeteria at Grant MacEwan University. We may no longer be at the square, but Occupy Edmonton is still just beginning, and we want you to come join a merry band that would change the world.