While I appreciate the impulse behind #OccupyWallStreet’s call to action, I think the movement’s limited success so far stems from a lack of identity and, consequently, a lack of purpose.
OccupyWallSt.org describes OWS as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions” that “plan[s] to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America,” which sounds good in theory, but doesn’t turn out quite as well in practice because the US isn’t Egypt and Wall Street isn’t Tahrir Square. And pretending that they are will not make for productive political action.
In general, Arab cultures have a strong sense of a shared public sphere, while in America there is much more emphasis on the individual and the private–public spaces are increasingly being taken over and replaced by privately owned and operated ones, e.g., charter schools. Wall Street itself is effectively a private space; as the iconic center of the financial world, it’s business is business. A space like Tahrir Square, on the other hand, is public in the sense that it doesn’t have an essential politics associated with it–that’s what people bring when they gather there.
So if protesters are trying to occupy Wall Street in the sense of taking up physical space within a private space, they are impeded by barricades and police. But if protesters are trying to occupy Wall Street in the sense of getting the people who work at financial institutions located there to engage with them (i.e., the protesters), you run into a different problem: that of the “leaderless resistance” (more below). In either case, the impulse to occupy Wall Street is a result of being occupied with Wall Street.
Because this stuff only matters if you believe it matters. Saying the financial industry and corporate America are to blame for the current economic and ecological crises we’re facing is fine, you won’t hear any argument. But, to me, trying to hold financial institutions accountable for the mess in order to enact positive change is like a 5-year-old trying to make a bigger kid kicking sand in his face stop by saying, “The practice of kicking sand in people’s faces is wrong! It has to stop now!” And everyone knows this kid. He’ll stop and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll never kick sand in your face ever again!”–as he throws the first handful. But in real life, that’s not what you do, because making someone else responsible for fixing things that are a problems for you means those problems never get solved. That kid is having the time of his life getting sand all in and around the sense organs arrayed on the front of your head. What you need to do is stop occupying that sandbox, get up, and go to another sandbox. Or better yet: build a new, better sandbox.
Leaderless movements are great, but they have not been successful on a large scale in the US. The American Revolution had the founding fathers, the Civil War had Abraham Lincoln, Civil Rights had MLK. There wasn’t just one person these movements hinged on. Other prominent figures were involved, and every person who gave their support, in whatever form, was integral to their successes. But there has always been a somebody–or somebodies–to serve as a rallying point. Again, I would argue that it’s a cultural thing, not good or bad, but a necessary to consider when trying to mobilize a popular nonviolent movement.
A corollary to the adage “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” could be “If you try to stand for everything, you’ll collapse under the weight and never get off the ground.” And I think this applies to OWS. Everyone wants their own personal interests served first, often at the cost of coming to a consensus. In a leaderless movement, individuals are less willing to make the personal concessions required for consensus because, to them, that isn’t consensus; it’s just someone else’s personal demands. If someone is posting “Vegan Occupiers Deserve Menu Options” on the OWS forum, it’s not that surprising the protest hasn’t received a lot of serious attention.
No one deserves vegan-friendly food, but everyone deserves a safe place to live, a nutritious diet, a well-rounded education, a living wage, and a public sphere where we can engage with one another.
So let’s go build a sandbox.