It doesn’t seem that long ago when there was no such thing as an “Occupy Insert Thing Here” movement. Just months ago, “Occupy Wall Street” was a call to action from an obscure Canadian activism/graphic design magazine, which gained steam when it was endorsed by the nebulous hacker collective known as Anonymous. Adbusters magazine said “here’s a date, let’s all do this thing” and Anonymous said “we’ll hack up some stuff on that day”, and that was about it. When I started researching the plans of the folks who were actually planning to show up, they were essentially “we’re gonna have a big People’s Assembly, find out what everyone wants our goal to be, and we’ll make that our goal.” To me, it sounded amateur and incredibly naive.
But if you take that last part, it seems like a pretty rational concept. In everyday life, if you have a problem in your household, workplace, classroom, neighborhood, relationship, it seems like the most pragmatic way of solving it.
1) “Everybody, I think we have a problem.”
2) “Do you agree that we have a problem?”
3) “I think the problem is X. What do you think the problem is?”
4) “We agree that X, Y and Z are problems.”
5) “What can we do to fix problems X, Y and Z?”
6) “Let us take actions A, B and C to solve problems X, Y and Z.”
That makes sense, right? There’s a problem, let’s talk about it and then try to fix it.
So that was the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street. “There’s a problem. The economy is broke, and millions of Americans are being crushed by the falling pieces. And we, the OWS organizers think that the both the problem and the solution have to do with Wall Street in some way. Get down here and let’s talk about this.”
I think we all agree that there’s a problem, right? Record unemployment, rising poverty, millions losing their homes, increasing cuts to social services at times when they’re most needed? And that’s just the stuff since the economy detonated in 2008. But I think that the OWS crowd identifies two enormous elephants in the room: 1) an economy that rewards the rich and increasingly punishes everyone else, and 2) a system of government in which the average citizen has little to no say. Essentially, unless you’re a multimillionaire, you’re probably screwed, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I call that a serious problem.
Of course, the Wall Street “1%” (actually, research tells me that these super-rich are really the 0.1%), don’t agree that there is a problem. Their primary motive is to make money via rapid-fire gambling and incredible fraud, working as hard and as unethically as necessary to not be holding the hot potato when it ignites. Paying more taxes, accepting legal reforms and limitations, and thinking about the consequences of their actions are all direct barriers to making money in the way they’ve become accustomed.
So: conflict. One group of people is the victim of an oppressive problem and is starting to demand solutions. And the other, bloated with trillions in ill-gotten profits, is willing to fight gold-plated tooth and diamond-encrusted nail to prevent those solutions from taking place. In fact, these 0.1% want changes too, ones that will accelerate the suffering of the average American. Despite proving that they cannot be trusted with the world’s economy, they want even fewer restrictions on how they can manipulate the markets. They also want even more cuts to their already light taxes, meaning cuts to government services that people need more desperately during this crisis era, or increases in taxes for the 99% just to hold on to these already insufficient government services.
In a staggering display of chutzpah, the 0.1%, their media pals, politician lackeys, and easily-annoyed average folks sneer and demand that the OWS folks explain what they are upset about and what policy changes they want to get there (”explain to me in one sentence what they want” railed one messageboard commenter). A economic and political clusterfuck decades and decades in the making, by the manipulations of an assortment of evil geniuses and complex institutions, and a group of angry, overworked victims should have figured out a reasonable fix for it all in their spare time, over the past two months. Seriously, fuck you guys.
There’s lots of problems. All of these problems are big and complicated. The solutions are difficult, because both economic and institutional political power are denied us. And it doesn’t help that while the protesters are trying to come up with answers, the police are treating them like hippie-shaped pepper-spray sponges.
My favorite sign from any OWS protest I’ve seen was this one in San Diego:
Positive political and social change in this country has rarely come from a reasoned debate, a political ad, a ribbon-wearing campaign, or even the ballot box. It most often comes when people disrupt the day-to-day functioning of society: sit-ins, strikes, civil disobedience, mass movements, riots, and yes, occupations. These types of actions can force people in power to make changes to get things “back to normal”, or frighten them into taking action because the consequences of escalating dissent might be worse. Sometimes this leads to reform. Sometimes it invalidates the entire regime. Sometimes it leads to outright revolution.
Taking part in these sorts of actions can interfere with life as you now live it. And a lot of those outcomes are potentially scary. But it seems clear to me that if people do not stand up and try to change the direction of this country, things will get worse: less freedom, less security, less democracy. Time to think long and hard about what you want for your world, and how to get there. Or jump right in and start making change right now.