When thousands of occupiers, union members, immigrant rights advocates, and other protesters march on Wall Street, and the New York Times covers the event with a headline about traffic jams, it’s no shock that people might be unclear on what Occupy Wall Street’s May Day protests were all about.
Journalists, accustomed to single-issue campaigns, are inclined to blame the OWS PR strategy and by pointing to activists’ “fuzzy messages.” This diagnosis isn’t totally unfair—the link between folks with anti-fracking signs and those picketing Bank of America might not be intuitive—but it also misreads the situation. Occupy’s messages are and always have been multiple, but they are also interconnected.
The movement is called Occupy Wall Street, after all, and there is a reason: at core, OWS is a stand against a small group of moneyed interests that hold an egregious amount of political, social, and economic power in this country.
If our concerns are many, it’s because this extreme concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a very few individuals is a problem so central that its tentacles stretch into every crevice of American life (and into many crevices beyond the borders of the USA, too).
When I got home from a 16-hour binge of May Day festivities, I posted a link to the Frontline miniseries “Money, Power & Wall Street” on my Facebook wall with a message encouraging anyone wondering why I was back on the streets to check it out. A college friend and BI writer asked me to put together a list of reasons to publish here. I still think you (and he) should check out Frontline’s sharp analysis of the financial crisis, but here are my own thoughts on why it’s still important to Occupy:
- Because it takes a spectacle to change the discourse. There was no “hibernation” of Occupy over the winter. There were meetings, teach-ins, and demonstrations nearly every day. Working groups like Occupy the SEC, were even working on the sort of wonky legal briefs that Serious Men in Suits take seriously. But without the camera-ready shots of tents in Zuccotti Park, the media generally found it easier to pretend that the movement was dead than to do the footwork of actually sorting out what was really going on. To change the dialogue of people outside of activist circles, we need, at least to some extent, to feed the beast. If the beast wants pictures of crowds and massive events to peg its stories on, well, May Day obliged. This isn’t to say that coverage will be fair, flattering, or insightful, but contrary to the schizoid imaginings of the New York Post—they simultaneously insisted that OWS is irrelevant yet spent a full four articles on May Day—major days of action demonstrate that the movement is still alive and that our concerns have yet to be addressed.
- Because while I’m glad that there are progressive people working in electoral politics, entrenched and well-financed groups are going to keep the good guys’ hands effectively tied until popular opposition makes the current arrangement politically untenable. Without this kind of outside pressure, the Democratic Party will never provide even a moderately effective counterweight to corporate interests. Remember the 2008 election? When voters provided the Dems with the Presidency, a (theoretically) filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a 79-seat advantage over the Republicans in the House? It’s four years later and the “too big to fail” banks are still too big, no financial executives responsible for the catastrophe have been held accountable, the carried interest loophole remains open, and regulators are still essentially toothless. The tendencies of the system are such that once in office, politicians get sucked into a never-ending cycle of dependence and back scratching with their donors. We have to build something big enough to make this behaviour a serious liability because left to their own devices, politicians never will.
- Because momentum is something that individuals build together. Standing on the sideline isn’t a neutral act; it’s a vote for the status quo. Do you doubt that Occupy has accrued enough power to seriously change our political economy? So do I. But when you show up to events like May Day, you add to Occupy’s political potency.
- Because movement building is a long and arduous process. The Post—proud as usual of their ignorance of history, current events, and pretty much anything whatsoever—claimed that OWS “is in the 16th minute of its 15 minutes of fame.” Social movements aren’t built in 15 minutes. They’re not built in a year. Remember that that nine years past between the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the Civil Rights Act, and the struggle for racial equality continues to this day. If you dream big—and Occupy’s dream of a fair economy is certainly a big one—your dreams are not going to be achieved quickly or easily.
- Because a political life based on alienation is no political life worth preserving. People deserve the opportunity to meaningfully participate in shaping the society that they live in, and the biannual choice between two corporatized parties doesn’t meet the rubric for “meaningful participation.” Visionary change doesn’t find its origin in a hyperprofessionalized political class of strategists and fundraisers who, by dint of occupational hazard, confuse their own myopia for the realm of the possible. To live wholly within the established system is to internalize its biases and boundaries. With its horizontal decision-making process and open membership structure, Occupy strives to embody the egalitarian world it advocates. It also refuses to enter the money-centered playing field of orthodox special interest groups, a world where it will never be able to compete and that is itself part of the problem.
- Because snark and condescension are easy but empty, and real invested work in political change is hard but meaningful. If you believe that Occupy is all patchouli oil and hacky-sacks, then you’re mistaken. If you’re feigning that belief to justify your own apathy, then the current political situation has left you blind to your political agency. No one is demanding that you sleep on the pavement 24/7. Try leaving your cynicism at home for an afternoon and check out an OWS event. (A schedule of New York events can be found here and you can track down events in your town with this handy map.)
Václav Havel wrote that earnest political action—”living within the truth,” is how he put it—”takes individuals back to the solid ground of their own identity.” In the political arena, though, “it throws them into a game of chance where the game is all or nothing.” Havel and his Czechoslovak allies won a gamble in their resistance to the tyranny of Soviet-style communism.
Now we’re facing that system’s inverse: a brand of capitalism that corrupts our politics and stands divorced from any sense of justice or compassion. I don’t know if Occupy will win its game of chance or even what that win would look like, but I do know that this is a fight worth waging.
Travis Mushett is a writer, Occupy activist, and PhD student at the Columbia University School of Journalism. He blogs at Curriculum Veto.
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