View from Australia: Occupied New York

By Jonathan Bradley

When James Fallows wrote last week about a disgraceful act of police brutality against Wall Street protesters in New York, I was appalled. I had little sympathy for the movement, which calls itself Occupy Wall Street, but Americans have the right to peaceably assemble without being subject to assault by law enforcement.

The reason I had little sympathy for the movement was that they seemed like a purposeless, directionless rabble, that had no hope of achieving their goals — that is, if they had any goals. Their "We are the 99 per cent" slogan was clever, but they seemed more concerned with paranoid denunciations of the rich rather than actively supporting policies that would boost growth, reduce unemployment, and create the necessary income growth required to reduce the inequality the protesters complained about. With Congressional Republicans (and some moderate Democrats) holding up President Barack Obama's jobs bill — which would be a good start on addressing those problems — focusing ire on bankers and stock traders seemed counterproductive. It didn't help the protesters' cause that their actions had been kicked-off with a lot of help from the Canadian anti-consumerism magazine Adbusters, which is one of those publications read primarily by college students who gain an interest in politics before they develop any sense. The protesters' not infrequent comparisons of their movement to the rebellions of the Arab Spring came off as grandiloquent, ignorant, and offensive. I thought I had them pegged: Occupy Wall Street was a distraction, and an ineffective one at that.

Yet around this past weekend, I started wondering if my impressions were wrong. More Americans than I would have expected seemed to be taking the protests seriously, and cheering them on. Groups in other cities started local protests in imitation. Labour groups began voicing support. The Occupy Wall Street folks seemed to have harnessed an anger that extended beyond the usual lefty suspects.

Nathan Schneider produced an FAQ that does a lot to explain what's going on. A lot of it just confirmed my worst suspicions, particularly the parts about the protesters continued lack of demands, and their inefficient chaotic decision-making process involving a "General Assembly," which is "a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought." But there are also ideas that complicate those intial reactions. Mike Barthel explains how some of Occupy Wall Street's flaws work as strengths:  

The masterstroke of the current protests is their realization that, in the absence of a broadly agreed-upon boogeyman, you can be against nothing specific at all. It’s against a system, after all, which is diffuse and faceless and hard to pin down ... So they found something specific and concrete that symbolizes that system: Wall Street. Everyone can assign whatever meaning to that they want — corporations, environmental ruin, campaign finance, capitalism — and they’ll all still be valid, because they’re all Wall Street. And so instead of someone going home because their cause isn’t being represented, everyone stays, because everyone’s cause is represented, and it’s bundled together under a banner big enough for that not to seem too incoherant. “Wall Street” is not a thing the left made up that the rest of the country doesn’t recognize. It’s a concept we all already agree upon. And we’re against it. That’s easy to get.

Being able to exploit that ambiguity is what’s made the movement so successful. There’s no leader, so there’s no personality whose individual foibles can be pointed out as a way of discrediting the larger point. There’s no official spokesperson, so any statement made isn’t necessarily made on behalf of all the protesters, it’s just individuals giving their own individual opinion. The point at all times is to emphasize the mass, and to let the actual differences in opinion inherent to any mass coexist peacefully

Suzy Khimm discusses how the movement could succeed:

The movement would have to attract institutional support, garnering both a broad coalition and a specific agenda. So far, its objectives have remained hazy. “Labor, lefty Democrats . . . mainstream people associated one way or another with the Democratic Party, they could help to channel the energy of the protests,” says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown historian and author of “American Dreamers,” which chronicles the rise of the American left. Progressive groups such as MoveOn and Van Jones’ Take Back the American Dream have begun cheering on Occupy Wall Street, but it’s unclear how they’ll relate to the movement.

To some extent, that institutional support is starting to accrete. Without endorsing the protesters, the White House has said they understand their concerns. In addition to the aforementioned union support, the House Progressive Caucus has embraced the movement. Many Democrats are wondering if this could be for them what the Tea Party was for Republicans, and not just a noisy gathering in Lower Manhattan.

As Ezra Klein puts it, "The number of people who want to sleep in the park and overthrow the system is not large. The number of people who want to express their frustration with the system and fight for a better deal might be." Occupy Wall Street is in the process of transforming from a movement dominated by the former group to one dominated by the latter group, and in doing so, it's gaining significant credibility and power. That's a good thing if you're sympathetic to left wing populism, but even those who are should show some caution.

The Tea Party was, for the right, hugely effective as a motivational and organising tool. It was somewhat less effective as a persuasive tool. Americans are often unsympathetic to people causing chaos in their streets, and sure enough, the Tea Party is one of the most unpopular brands in American politics today. The challenge for Occupy Wall Street is to use the energy the protests have ignited without turning people against their cause.

It would be remiss of me to write a column on Occupy Wall Street without allowing room for the protesters' grievances. Luckily, a Tumblr called We are the 99 Percent has been cataloguing their ire. Check it out to see folks explain why they're protesting, in their own words.

6 October 2011