I’ve kept an eye on the Occupy Wall Street protests these last few weeks. I’m lucky enough to have several people in my social networking feeds that are doing the same thing, even including one guy who’s been on the ground with his camera. We’ll see what happens tomorrow with the temporary eviction, which I think could be serious test of the movement’s public image if they don’t work amicably with the rather reasonable desire to keep the park in good condition. Then again, it could also just be a pretext for shutting it down. It’s hard to know for sure – regardless of the the motivation, I doubt the protesters have any interest in leaving, and I also doubt the police will feel any reticence in evicting them.
There’s a lot of discussion about what the point of this whole movement is supposed to be. I’ve found this to be frustrating, because I don’t think it’s that hard to understand who and what are being protested – the problem is that the protests are coming about three years too late. There would be absolutely no question about the purpose of these demonstrations if they had occurred in the weeks following the major bank bailouts. Some people would use this as an example of the scourge of apathy across America, but I believe there’s a few reasons it’s taken so long for any serious protests to occur.
1) The mortgage-backed securities fiasco was complicated.
There was plenty of outrage, to be certain, but laying down the train of cause-and-effect meant understanding some of the basics of how the market functions. Over the following months, some great videos and resources came out to understanding exactly what happened and why, but the average American watching cable was not being presented with anything in the vein of intelligible information. Effective protest means directing anger at the proper source, but also requires an understanding of what is in need of changing. Some blamed the banks. Or Magnetar. Others blamed the administration. Or the people who bought houses on bad credit. Or the Fed. Or Paulson and Geithner. Without a unified target to direct energy, public outrage turned into yet another liberal vs. conservative shitshow.
2) We had a new president who was supposed to perform serious reform.
The feeling of anticipation I had for the smackdown I thought Obama would bring on the banks and hedge funds was tangible. That smackdown never came, and instead, there was even a bizarre cognitive dissonance coming from the financial sector: they felt villainized and discriminated against by the administration, despite the fact that Obama couldn’t even stop the CEOs from receiving millions in bonuses. It became, in my mind, a classic feature of Obama’s tactics – good intentions, but lacking the balls to do what’s truly necessary. He’s too eager to compromise. The system was left mostly unchanged.
3) There were no examples.
Within the last decade, the closest thing America has seen in terms of nation-wide protest has been the Tea Party, and this, I feel, is but a shadow of genuine activism. A movement that was swiftly co-opted by the right wing, the Tea Party became nothing more than a tool to lower Obama’s ratings and later, to fight the heath care bill. Legend has it that in the beginning, the Tea Party was not unlike the Occupy Wall Street protests, having a serious interest in disentangling the incestuous relationship between government and corporations. By the time I ever saw anything of it, however, any trace of that had evaporated into mindless outrage.
Recently, however, there’s been the Arab Spring, a subject of great interest and admiration all across the American media. Many people have shown a serious interest in how these budding revolutions are turning out, and it’s practically a guarantee that the courage and spirit of people in the Middle East has been a source of inspiration for the protests we’re seeing today.
A little late in coming, we now have the Occupy protests sprinkled across the country, and the haters are hating hard. CNN, at first refusing to acknowledge their existence, now rather brilliantly co-opts the movement to make the movement suit their needs (if you don’t get it – consider the simple irony of a movement called Occupy Wall Street being primarily about government corruption). Twitter continues to keep #ows and its affiliates out of the trending list. You can tell any given news outlet’s stance just based on how they’re phrasing the upcoming eviction. They’re either jobless hippies dirtying up the city or valiant warriors against The Man.
I want to see this movement succeed. I understand exactly what they’re trying to express. Frustration about a lack of change. The absurdity of corporate personhood. The ever-growing maw of income inequality. The oligarchical system of relationships between the government and business. A void of effective and trustworthy regulating authorities. A fear for the future of America as a free nation, if we continue on this path.
The obstacles, I fear, are too great. Misinformation is rampant, and without individual spokespeople, there is little hope for control over public image. Demands will never be met because the protesters have zero leverage, especially without public support. I will be surprised if any significant change occurs as a direct result of these protests.
Even still, I don’t think all hope is lost. If it can be done once, it can be done again – and better. These protests reveal a hunger for highly organized and effective activism. Maybe the Occupy movement will find that in time to prevent its own fizzling out – but my instincts say that if it were going to happen, it would have happened already. Only time will tell.