For America's New Radicals, a Coming-Out Party--and Brutal Cops
Gandhi lost, but never mind.
#OccupyWallStreet, in its second week as of this writing, is and was important. It is the first major street protest inspired by the economic collapse that began in 2008. It is also the first notable public repudiation of Obama by the American Left. Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Canadian "culture jammer" magazine Adbusters asked people to converge on lower Manhattan's financial district in order to protest corporate greed in general and--in a reflection of the influence of social networking culture--to develop one specific major demand after they gathered.
Several thousand people arrived 10 days ago but were turned away from Wall Street by a phalanx of NYPD officers manning metal barricades. A few hundred demonstrators, dominated by the scruffy white twentysomething college grads known as "hipsters," wound up at Zuccotti Park, whose private owners granted them permission to camp there.
There they remain, noshing on donated pizza, talking, hanging out, hoping to replicate the magic of Cairo's Tahrir Square while remaining committed to "absolute nonviolence in the Gandhian tradition," as Adbusters commanded.
Occupy Wall Street now seems to be fizzling out.
For me and other older, jaded veterans of leftist struggle, failure was a foregone conclusion. From the opening words of the magazine's updates to the participants, which it referred to as "dreamers, jammers, rabble-rousers and revolutionaries," it was evident that yet another opportunity to agitate for real change was being wasted by well-meant wankers.
Michael Moore complained about insufficient media coverage, but this non-movement movement was doomed before it began by its refusal to coalesce around a powerful message, its failure to organize and involve the actual victims of Wall Street's perfidy (people of color, the poor, the evicted, the unemployed, those sick from pollution, etc.), and its refusal to argue and appeal on behalf of a beleaguered working class against an arrogant, violent and unaccountable ruling elite--in other words, to settle for nothing less than the eradication of capitalism.
Don't just occupy Wall Street.
"I'm not for interference [with wealthy people]," The New York Times quoted protester Anna Sluka. "I hope this all gets people who have a lot to think: I'm not going to go to Barcelona for three weeks. I'm going to sponsor a small town in need." Earth to Anna: Rich people know poor people are suffering. They don't care.
Also, lose the clown clothes. It's not the early 1960s; you don't have to wear a suit like the civil rights marchers did. But how about showing up on national TV looking decent, like it's Casual Friday?
Revolutionaries should not expect fair coverage by media outlets owned by the transnational corporations they hope to overthrow. They also shouldn't make themselves so easy to mock. Press accounts reveled in photos of topless women and the dudes on stilts who always show up at these things. So much bad hair, so many colors that don't occur in nature.
A protest is a stage. All over New York City and around the country, people are watching on TV. Ideally, you want viewers to drop what they're doing, to come join you. At bare minimum, you want them to approve of you. To identify with you. Maybe even send a check.
You say you represent the "99 percent" of Americans getting screwed by the top one percent. So act like the 99 percent. Dress like them.
Be normal, inclusive and welcoming.
Reporters quoted demonstrators who sounded as ignorant about current affairs as members of the Tea Party, albeit nicer. It was a perfect set-up for hit pieces by the likes of Ginia Bellafante, who called the downtown gathering an "opportunity to air societal grievances as carnival" and slammed the "group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably."
History has proven that an absolute commitment to nonviolence can never effect radical change. This was shown again on Saturday September 23rd, when police used orange plastic nets to "kettle" and arrest about 80 Occupy Wall Streeters who had been marching peacefully through Greenwich Village. According to numerous witnesses and media accounts, none resisted. Cops went wild, beating several men bloody and macing at least one woman after she had been cuffed.
Sadly, too many people angry at gangster capitalists will look at the YouTube videos of bloodied young faces and say to themselves: I'm willing to suffer for a cause, not a scene.
Back in July, Adbusters wanted the "one simple demand" expressed by Occupy Wall Street to be "that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington."
What do we want?
A bipartisan blue-ribbon commission to study the extension of campaign finance reform!
When do we want it?
As soon as the committee completes its work!
Unsurprisingly and rightly, that uninspiring (and easily satisfied) demand has been set aside in favor of something better but hardly worth taking a rubber bullet for: "a vague but certain notion that the richest percentile of the country remains fat and happy as the going-on-five-year-old recession continues to batter the middle and working class," as The New York Observer put it.
Occupy Wall Street should have demanded something majestic, reasonable and unobtainable, in order to expose the brutal nature of the system. Something like the nationalization of all corporations, equal wages for all workers, or the abolition of securities exchanges.
Some organizers also called Occupy Wall Street "Days of Rage"; along with organization and focus, rage is what is lacking.
The aggregated wealth of the superrich has been stolen from the rest of us. We should not ask them to give some of it back. We should take it all, then jail them.
Which isn't going to happen nonviolently.
Rich people are bad people. Someone has to say it out loud.
I have no problems with the organizers of a protest deciding that its marchers will remain nonviolent. I am speaking at such an event on October 6th. However, I think it's unwise to broadcast those intentions to the authorities.
Few people think about it now, but street demonstrations have always relied on a sense of menace. Sure, people marching through the streets of a medieval city might begin by expressing their demands peacefully. But they drank beer instead of water. On a hot day, things might escalate into a riot. The local lord was wise to give in earlier rather than later.
The rich and powerful never relinquish their prerogatives voluntarily. Only violence or the credible threat of violence can force them to give up what they stole through violence and corruption.
Despite the protesters' many missteps, which were inevitable due to their lack of experience and political seasoning, the Occupy Wall Streeters should be commended. Sure, they did some stupid things. But they have taken a first (tentative) step into history. They have learned lessons. Hopefully they will be smarter next time.
See you in Washington on October 6th, when the October2011.org coalition will begin the occupation of Freedom Square near the White House. Our demand is simple: We will not leave until the last occupation soldier and mercenary is withdrawn from U.S.-occupied Afghanistan.
(Ted Rall is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." His website is tedrall.com.)