A Few Positive Comments About Occupy Wall Street, Followed By Some Negative Ones

Posted on October 2, 2011


On a positive note. I think that no matter what, OWS has succeeded in opening up a dialogue on how to plan political protest, how to set goals and what to expect. OWS has had a far greater impact on the public sphere than it has had on Wall Street in the past week, bringing issues that are generally discussed in sedate tones, and where punditry and political operatives control the conversation, into the open. Most of all it has recalibrated activism as something that non-activists can consider in their political choices; its broadened the concept, taken it out of the hands of progressive institutions and let everyone know that they can come as freelancers, and form their own scene if the cards are right.

I was going to write something more about how OWS has recalibrated the idea, ostenisble goals and method of protest, but after reading some news coverage of the Brooklyn Bridge action, I’ll save them for later. The reports suggest that the use of the of car lanes on the bridge was more of a misunderstanding than an act of civil disobedience. Complaints that police lured activists into stepping out of bounds, suggest that observers should be aware of all the facts before making claims about OWS and what its doing, what we think its doing, and what the individuals think they’re doing.

If you’re still reading this, I must warn you that I’m about to say some things about Occupy Wall Street that could be construed to be negative.


Diversity: I’ve started to wonder if there is any real point to criticizing progressive movements for lacking diversity. In the US, at least, progressive politics are dominated by middle class liberals, intellectuals, university students and civil society organizations. This has become even more pronounced as the public sphere has become more extensive through the internet. Online movements like Occupy Wall Street, US Uncut, and the forthcoming October occupation in DC, are all the product of online agitation. OWS emerged from Adbusters, US Uncut from a Nation article that was widely circulated in progressive circles, and the last from Firedoglake.

I don’t pretend to understand the digital divide or how it works, but I do know it exists. That’s why it wasn’t surprising to note that the African American Day Parade was scheduled for the same weekend as Occupy Wall Street’s first weekend. Looking at the stark difference in the make up of the two groups, I’m not surprised that not many people felt comfortable mentioning this awkward reality.

In one sense, we’ve gotten so used to this dichotomy, that its not something we comment on. In another sense, it doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Its not like OWS was a secret, nor that African Americans and other groups weren’t invited. But there is something tone deaf about the timing, and illustrative about where the populations that triggered the OWS movement come from and what circles they run in. One has to contemplate a reality where there wasn’t anyone in that first wave that said out loud something like, “oh, sorry, I can’t make it, I’m participating in the largest African American parade, in Harlem that weekend.”

In that vein, I think this blog post [and this one, at Leftturn] is are worth reading as record of how race issues are being dealt with in the General Assemblies. I don’t agree with all or even most of the writer’s criticisms, nor how the group handled the issue.

But I do think its worth noting that despite the issues of representation and diversity I’ve mentioned, and that are obvious to all witnesses, the GA still felt comfortable writing the following:

As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members…”

One can appreciate the sentiment. But sentiments without concrete realities are what America has been built on for generations—that and slavery, sexism, Jim Crow and race-specific imprisonment. I’m glad that this was pointed out to people there.

Beware Unions & Other Organizations. The blogosphere has been full of calls for unions and other orgs to back the grouping. I understand the sentiment, but I think that OWS should be wary of the resolutions from unions that claim to back the movement. Unions are the epitome of top down hierarchies. Mixing a top down hierarchy with a lateral movement invites trouble for the latter.

Rather than accept this certification with blind trust, I think OWS should demand concrete acts and measured participation—that is investment via sweat equity and risk. Its no secret that SEIU is in the middle of contract fights throughout the country. An airline pilot’s union was quite content to make it seems as if a protest that they had planned months ago held last week, was a response to OWS. And the AFL-CIO’s Trumka has now given the group his blessing, while sneakily inserting messages into OWS that can be said to be slightly alien to the core message. Even if OWS is somewhat open-ended, Trumka’s idea that “trade imbalance” is one of its issues seems a bit off.

There’s a risk of creating an OWS brand, that does little but serve as an aggregator for institutional efforts, and dilutes the power of this movement: that power comes exactly from not having leaders who can negotiate away momentum for some tweaks, or sector specific perks.  These groups are all political actors, with their own agendas.

In the past, focused civil disobedience action—to pass or repeal laws—has worked to address the issues of communities. It seems to have lost some steam over the years, through ubiquity and apathy in the general public. But in any case, there’s just too many things “wrong” right now. There isn’t one dynamic of injustice, there’s several dozen. And they haven’t even mentioned war at OWS yet. The problem will be that the insitutions will be bringing traditional methods of quid pro quo to an out of the box process, and the clash will be inevitable.

Ironically, the rank and file of these unions and organizations are exactly one of the groups most affected by the current economic problems we face. There’s a tremendous gap between this demographic and the people who are at Occupy Wall Street. It was fascinating to watch protesters take the Brooklyn Bridge car lanes and actually create problems for the city and police because of their numbers, organization and resolve. But looking at the people on the pedestrian walkway during a United Way demonstration [still not sure how the two coincided, if at all] and contrasting it with those in the car lane, reveals a continuing and disturbing demographic gap that I spoke about above.  Attracting the rank and file, rather than the management of the institutions seems like a better goal. While Tahrir square’s labor involvement was a big factor in the protests there, their movement was an equal rebellion against calcified union leadership aligned with the state.

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