I Heart #OccupyWallStreet
At first, I didn’t love Occupy Wall Street, the protest/encampment in New York City’s financial district, to be honest. When I went by in the afternoon on Sept. 17, the first day, it struck me as too counter-cultural, too white, too homogenous, too small and too unfocused. People demonstrating their support for libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul were as prominent as anyone. I hung out at one of many small discussion groups (“assemblies,” if you prefer), and was dismayed that the discussion barely seemed to touch on Wall Street, instead wandering on to such terrain as community gardens, minimizing the role of corporations in your life, and such.
I returned last night, about 10 days in. Not much has changed at the park, although, let it be said, it seemed very clean and well organized considering hundreds of people were sleeping or spending nearly the entire day there. Yet I find my attitude has evolved. It is not just that the protesters showed courage in the face of the police attack on a march last Saturday. Nor am I swayed by the march of left wing celebrities that have appeared at the park this week, including actress Susan Sarandon, filmmaker Michael Moore, and philosopher Cornel West, although I respect their showing up. No, it is two other factors that have captured my imagination, which we can call time and space.
First, the simple fact that the occupation has been going on this long, and is showing no signs of flagging, is quite significant. As problematic as it may be, simply by sticking around it has become a part of the political landscape of the city and even the U.S. All of the diverse community and labor groups that constitute the social movement landscape here have probably the noticed the demographics of the people in the park I described above, which are different from their own. Yet many are trekking to the park, hoping to make some connections, or find support for diverse causes. Last night one of the few persons of color I saw speak (besides Cornel West) said she was from the “outreach committee” and she described an ambitious “month of rage” program of protests by students and unions in October. It’s not like New York City has not had similar protests in the recent past, but with Occupy Wall Street present the landscape has changed, at least a little. In addition to looking at the city or state government, or corporations or banks, as targets of protests, protesters will now be keeping at least half an eye on Occupy Wall Street, sort of a backstop or clearinghouse which hopefully can mobilize others in support of particular actions. The amorphous, “horizontal” form of organizing in the park is actually well suited to this purpose. I think the occupation can function as a scrappy version of a social forum, but instead of meeting every couple of years, it would be continuously present. And specifically targeting Wall Street, without identifying one demand that can act as a miracle cure, may prove to be sharper than critics anticipate. After all, it will take many steps to undo the power of Wall Street. At the same time, it provides an identifiable target outside the limits of the two-party system.
The other thing that struck me is the spacial element, the way this is spreading to numerous cities in the U.S., including Los Angeles, Boston, Las Vegas and Durham, N.C. If Occupy Wall Street had tighter “messaging,” as many people have urged, and was better focused on just one demand (tax financial transactions! Jail the crooks! Restore Glass Steagall!) this would make little sense. Why Occupy Las Vegas to make demands on Wall Street or Washington? But this other role that I sketched above — knitting together the social struggles in the city, reinforcing all of them and providing an oppositional space, while “Wall Street” provides a broad, unifying target — is something that would be useful in practically every city, large and small.
As I’ve said before, there has been considerable protest on the left since the inauguration of Obama. There have been strikes, prison revolts, protests at the state level against budget cuts … Yet it has been difficult to think of these struggles as having any unifying factor, even if some people are sympathetic to all of them. This is the promise of the occupation movement. If, as I think is likely, it takes hold in many different cities, it will become easier to identify when people ask where is the protest movement on the left under Obama. This is a movement with many demands. It cannot be contained within the framework of electoral politics. It may be relatively small and inchoate at first. But watch. It may do more than anyone anticipates to spur the growth of something much larger.
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