Occupy Wall Street, Contextualized

When asked last week about Occupy Wall Street, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said of the movement, “I think it’s dangerous -- this is class warfare.” He’s not wrong.

Occupy Wall Street began with a call from the venerable culture-jamming organization Adbusters, which posted an invitation on its website which read, in part:

On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices... We demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington. It's time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we're doomed without it.

That was where it started. In the past few weeks, however, Occupy Wall Street has moved beyond any single goal and become a massive staging of civil disobedience against corporate corruption and the buying and selling of government. It is defiantly free of an overseeing organization, of a defined leadership or even a stated goal. Some are tired of unemployment, and angry about criminal negligence on the part of financial institutions, for sure, but more than that, many of the participants have little in common aside from feeling unlistened to, uncared for and institutionally abandoned.

In one of the better accounts I've read of the Occupy Wall Street experience, Manissa McCleave Maharawal writes about the complexity of the gathering on the always-excellent Racialious. She talks about first arriving on the scene:

I didn’t know anyone down there. Not one person. And there were a lot of young white kids. But there weren’t only young white kids. There were older people, there were mothers with kids, and there were a lot more people of color than I expected, something that made me relieved. We sat on the stairs and watched everyone mill around us. There was the normal protest feeling of people moving around in different directions, not sure what to do with themselves, but within this there was also order: a food table, a library, a busy media area...

...I stayed there for a few hours. I was generally impressed and energized by what I saw: people seemed to be taking care of each other. There seemed to be a general feeling of solidarity, good ways of communicating with each other, less disorganization than I expected and everyone was very very friendly. [...] And when I left, walking my bike back through the streets of the financial district, fighting the crowds of tourists and men in suits, I felt something pulling me back to that space. It was that it felt like a space of possibility, a space of radical imagination. And it was energizing to feel like such a space existed.

This week, the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective put together a short documentary chronicling the remarkable pop-up community that has evolved out of Occupy Wall Street, supplying food, support and even first aid to participants. On a personal note, I watched this video and it made me want to get on a train to NYC and go there, right now.

Unfortunately, in the midst of a primarily peaceful protest, there has been violence, and many arrests, and there are numerous videos depicting police officers beating and pepper-spraying protesters even as they try to flee.

There are two recent movements to which Occupy Wall Street (which has now gone nationwide, with similar events happening in San Francisco, Washington DC and even my adopted hometown of Boston) can be compared. We can look at it as analogous to the ultraconservative anti-tax Tea Party movement, insofar as both represent a rebellion by a group of individuals who feel abused by their government.

However, it is worth noting that even given Tea Party activists’ willingness to threaten violence, or at least to use language that implies as much, to my knowledge no Tea Party activist has been beaten by a police officer, and very few have ever been arrested. I’d argue the reason for this is simple: The Tea Party is not a youth-driven movement. As such, it is largely unthreatening, even with its fondess for weapons and gun-based metaphors.

Youth movements have always been threatening to “the establishment,” to drag out an old hippie term. Young people are often most willing to make sacrifices because they have little to lose. If you have recently graduated college, with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before you’ve even begun your career, and with the knowledge that the odds of you getting the job you want -- or any job at all -- are slim, you might be more willing to camp out on a New York street corner for weeks just to make a point as well.

When you’re young, you can afford to focus your passion on big issues. You don’t have a mortgage, or a family; you’re not worried about keeping your job so you’ll have health insurance and a steady source of income, because you’ve probably never had these things to start with, and in the current climate you’ve little hope of procuring them.

These things -- the mortgages and the families and the car payments and the health insurance -- they keep the rest of us complacent, or at least numb, when faced with the hard times others are suffering. If those of us who are settled and relatively secure find the motivation to get involved, it’s a purely academic decision for us. We can choose to step up, or choose to turn away. For many others, turning away has ceased to be a liveable option.

The other, more hopeful (or ominous, depending on your perspective) movement we can look to for comparison is the Arab Spring, which began with the Tunisian revolution in December of 2010, and has continued through similar uprisings and revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and several other countries. Although Iran is not an Arab nation, the 2009 protests against the Iranian presidential election results were similar in methology and scope. These were all youth-driven movements, inspired as much by hope as by anger and frustration with the status quo.

When I refer to Occupy Wall Street as a youth-driven movement, I don’t mean to erase the significant participation by people over the age of 30 (or 40, or 50, or 60). However, Occupy Wall Street, like the Arab Spring uprisings and revolutions, is a movement organized via means that are largely invisible or at best incoherent to a majority of people without an existing investment in new media and new culture -- these are social evolutions appropriately described as “young.”

How do you stop a movement organized via Twitter, or Facebook, when you don't understand how these technologies are being used? They are decentralized means of organizing. It’s not a matter of busting into a revolutionary group’s headquarters and arresting the lot. These events are facilitated by conversations literally traveling around the world within minutes.

Occupy Wall Street differs in that it is not a revolutionary movement in the traditional sense, as it does not aim to oust a sitting leader. Rather, Occupy Wall Street seems to have evolved into a demonstration of our ability to govern ourselves, rather than to be governed by the oft-cited 1 percent of the American population who control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Self-governance is, after all, the point of a democracy, but it only works when everyone is given an equal voice, no matter how many digits comprise their bank balance.

When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney calls this class warfare, he probably thinks this is a condemnation of Occupy Wall Street, that it is a matter of the lazy poor looking for an handout, or worse, an excuse for their failures to succeed in the fabled American Dream. But the American Dream does not happen in the moment of success -- the American Dream happens when individuals feel assured that they have a right to speak up and be heard, to work together toward a common goal, to express and publish their thoughts and experiences without hindrance, “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If that last bit sounds familiar, it’s from the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Those of us who have grown up in the US only really become aware of these rights when something happens to threaten them; otherwise, we have the luxury of taking them for granted. Occupy Wall Street is not just a warzone, not just a protest, not just a gathering of malcontents, misfits, and alienated youth: It is rather the very heart of American democracy.