Friday, September 30, 2011

Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, in the middle of its sudden escalation

After spending the last two weeks totally writing off Occupy Wall Street, the long-term protest that's been lingering in Zuccotti Park, I finally took notice today.  I'd been, like, 13 days, and instead of tragically petering out, it seems to have picked up a bit of support and momentum.  I was surprised to hear that.

And then today, there was a rampant rumor that Radiohead would be playing, which drew about 3000 people down to the site.  It was false, unfortunately, but it certainly escalated the phenomenon by some orders of magnitude.  If you're on this leftish side of the political spectrum, it seems to be worth getting agitated about.

There are widespread claims that they're incomprehensible, they have no solid platform or reasonable goals, and they really just seem like a bunch of hippies out to make a laughing stock of liberals. Those are reasonable criticisms, but they ignore the emergent truth of the protest... that it's not about particular short-term goals, or about one particular issue with a particular event, election, or injustice. If it was one of those things, it would have a clear victory condition, and it would probably have been pitifully narrow and ineffective. Crowds of chanting people don't overturn convictions or get new legislation approved.  That, ideally, is the job of those politicians we all elect.

But we can maybe read a different philosophy, a different victory condition, into this whole thing.  The possible positive force here -- the one thing a protest like this could potentially accomplish -- is that it reframes the political conversation.  This is something that, on any given day and for any given person, is absolutely impossible.  No matter how much you blog, you'll either be considered a tepid moderate or a radical twit.  And because it's impossible for one person, it's often seemed, in the last decade or so, that it's impossible altogether, as if the tone of national conversation moves according to some supernatural logic (and anti-logic, sometimes).

Who proved this wrong?  It was the goddamn Tea Party.  The Tea Party emerged spontaneously and kept repeating its anti-government message, and this thread of conversation has totally overtaken the national political discourse.  The excitement got those conservatives elected in the midterms, and it's created a marked upsurge of libertarianism, both as a political loyalty and as a theme in the wider conservative platform.  It's a movement that still has legs, and as it's taken over the whole discussion, the left has lost its enthusiasm, stalled out, and started suffering a string of minor frustrations: its disillusionment with Obama's superpowers - the special elections - the Wisconsin recall vote.

And I think the reason we don't seem to get breaks is because we've lost a foothold in the national conversation.

So that's where this protest has promise: it's bringing new visibility to a discontent, vocal partisan position that has been marginalized in the national discourse for too long. When this is your criteria for assessment, it doesn't matter if there's a list of concrete demands unifying your movement.  All that matters is that there's enough philosophical overlap, enough shared spirit, that it can legitimize more talk, more action, more voting and legislating.

Those claims of "disunity" and lack of focus were valid, back when it seemed like this OWS movement might just peter out.  Creating momentum with such a broad base, without any particular incident to incite anger, is REALLY difficult.  But the OWS protests have actually cleared that initial hurdle.  Now they need to build this whole thing into as large, as global, as visible a sentiment as possible.  They need thought leaders and political advocates to see that a serious leftist perspective is legitimate.  They need them to sense a serious political force in the left, and they need them to try to mobilize it.  They need them to see that the spirit of leftism isn't dead.

Still, this "movement" thing is at a precarious place.  After the numbers swelled this evening, and the TWA union joined the protest, they all decided to march to the NYPD HQ as a protest against police brutality.  Now, I know this is a convenient way to drum up defensive indignance among activist types, but come on -- this protest is about the bankers' excesses and the politicians' collaboration.  It's not about police brutality or the legitimacy of the rule of law.  The police officers are public workers being squeezed by the political environment, and they could make powerful allies.  I hope the protestors -- especially the General Assembly -- take this into account, and make this "march" as much about solidarity as it is about confrontation.

The last last LAST thing this protest can afford to do is to alienate the middle class and moderate America, both on the left and the right side of the partisan divide.  The fastest way for the movement to crash and burn will be: 1) to start railing about leftist issues that have no large-scale traction (i.e. pro-Palestine, PETA, etc); 2) to ignite tensions with working Americans and public employees; and 3) to allow any hint of violence into the conduct of the protest itself.

If you want to know if it's still going on, feel free to check out the Live Stream.  The momentum may surprise you.

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