I don’t understand what the hell is happening with Occupy Wall Street and that’s the problem because I doesn’t feel like they do either. Here’s a conversation I had yesterday to illustrate the problem:
ME: Have you been following what’s been happening with this protest in New York?
SO: What protest?
ME: It’s apparently picking up in other cities as well.
SO: What’s it about?
ME: They even have a sort of statement of purpose on the Internet.
SO: What for?
ME: Yeah, I couldn’t really tell you.
For a protest to be going on its third week you would think that I could clearly articulate what it was about, what the aims and goals were, but the whole thing feels like a crappy telecine rerun of protests from the last 40 years.
Which means it looks like a blip on the history of populist dissatisfaction, not even worthy of a footnote.
I have caught the videos of police abuse at the protests, and seen flyers locally for support rallies, and read blog posts suggesting this is the American Fall of the Arab Spring, and even suggestions that this is the beginning of a third major political party that will go underground in the winter like a tulip bulb and emerge in full bloom come the spring. And I’m reminded of the great nearly-annual student protests over fee hikes that takes place at UC Berkeley. Perhaps you remember them?
No? I’m not surprised.
I moved to Berkeley in 1980 and lived in the vicinity of the UC campus for over 20 years and almost as sure as you can find drunk frat boys at Top Dog after midnight on Saturdays, protests are a way of life in the birthplace of Free Speech. When you’re 18 and on your own for the first time these protests are exciting, intoxicating, invigorating. I remember the day after the elections there was a near-spontaneous protest march over Reagan becoming president. Flyers all over implored people to meet at the BART station for a traditional march through the streets — down Shattuck, up Dwight and past Barrington hall, around People’s Park, up Telegraph, and onto the campus itself — shouting this anger and disapproval over the election of California’s former Governor, the man who once ordered the National Guard to fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds on the citizens of these very same streets! Hundreds of people, not just college kids, marching through the streets shouting in unison as if practiced: “The People, united, shall never be defeated!” Yes! I remember thinking, this is what it means to not sit at home and grouse but to actually get out and do something about your dissatisfaction.
Ah, how little I knew back then.
Caught up in the moment, I was quick to overlook the protestors marching with signs about women’s rights, about abolishing the death penalty, No Nukes! and Free Leonard Peltier! All these voices of dissent, united as one against a president who stood for all that was against the will of the people, united. Yes, it made perfect sense then. Over time, as the Reagan era took flight, as federal funding cuts closed mental institutions, as we went to war in Granada, as we sent CIA operatives into Central America to train “freedom fighters” the protests came with increased frequency. The people took to the streets, the speakers stood on the steps where Mario Savio once stood and made proclamations, and all around the same people, the same signs. Boycott Apartheid! ROTC Off Campus! Gay Rights! Tania Lives! The people united in voice, yes, but not in ideals.
In the spring, as the flowers bloomed, so did the annual increase in student registration fees for the coming year and the inevitable protests that followed. Students occupied Sproul Hall, they occupied California Hall. They shouted through bullhorns and they hung sheets with their banner’s of protest spray-painted on them from the windows. They demanded change. They got arrested and the occasional platitude from the Regents. The school year ended, the students blew home like dandelion spores, the fall came and everything was status quo.
The reason the student protests didn’t work was because a show of numbers and shouted demands don’t have any effect on those in power. The Regents knew that if they sat it out long enough the students would leave campus and the school year would begin with a whole new batch of Freshmen who knew nothing of the protests and wouldn’t balk at paying higher fees. And ultimately the Regents of the University of California didn’t care because (a) they already had the student’s money and (b) if the students didn’t pay up they wouldn’t get their grades. The problem was that the protest didn’t actually hurt the University in the spot it would make the most impact: their bank account. The hiatus between semesters and during the summer made it difficult for the movement to maintain its momentum. And, as always, the protests drew on a contingent of perpetual protestors who would move in on any public protest in an attempt to gain recognition for their cause by piggybacking onto the cause of the moment.
Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Whadda you got?
So what’s changed between 1953 when Marlon Brando tossed out that line of rebellion and 2011 as people in NYC are getting arrested for occupying a bridge with their protest? It’s hard to say. I get that there is a deep anger and dissatisfaction about Wall Street and banks continuing to profit while the rest of the country goes through an economic depression. The problem for me isn’t that people are angry enough to protest, it’s imagining that a show of force in the streets is going to translate into meaningful change. I would love to know of an example in modern times where this level of public protest was met by change from those at whom the protest was directed. How many years of anti-war protest in the late 60s and 70s before America pulled out of Vietnam, and wasn’t the larger public more mobilized against the war by Walter Cronkite’s criticism than the collected voices from any mass rally?
Listen, I don’t have a problem with what Occupy Wall Street’s agenda is, only its methods. They’ve amassed attention, that’s great, but their message isn’t clear to a lot of people still, so that’s a problem. And as for Wall Street and the banks, wouldn’t it be more effective to collectivize and organize a financial hit? What if…
What if there was an organized run on the banks? What if a date was chosen for everyone to go to their bank on a Friday, withdraw all but a token amount from all their accounts, say $1, and then promise to return the money to those accounts once the banks have acknowledged the public dissatisfaction and made hard (not vague) promises to change. See, pulling all that money out has a much larger effect on them than people protesting in the streets. It’s harder to do this with Wall Street – Have everyone sell off their stocks? Close out retirement accounts? – but a message sent to banks, even for a limited time like a weekend, that might make a difference. Just as the students of Berkeley might have been in a better negotiating position if they simply refused to pay their reg fees in the first place.
Starting a protest movement in the fall, one some say could blossom into a political party, is deadly. To assume that it will be reborn in the spring with renewed energy is folly. There is a limited window before East Coast weather becomes a force of demobilization, time for a movement to seriously be thinking about what it can do to be taken seriously now and in the coming months.
No arrests for wearing masks, no innocent bi-standers getting pepper sprayed, no mixed-message signs, no mass marching across bridges that has no effect on the financial fat cats the protest is aimed at. You want to hit money hard? Hit them in the wallet.