“Hello, you’ve reached the people of the United States of America. We’re away from our desks right now, and perhaps for good — so instead of leaving a message for us, we encourage you to take your messages directly to the halls of power for their consideration. If you require immediate assistance, do not ask the agents of governments or corporations, but organize in your own communities instead. For directory assistance, get out in the streets and talk to others concerned about the direction of the nation and world. To be connected to an operator, follow the protest signs and/or the smell of teargas in the financial districts across the country. And if you should become disconnected … we are very happy to welcome you home to the movement!”
Enter the “Occupy” Movement
Our “interesting times” just got much more interesting. Is it actually possible that the “sleeping giant” that is the American people is finally beginning to join the rest of the world and show a genuine pulse? To be sure, we’ve been pretty well shell-shocked on these shores in the new millennium, and overall we’ve been less directly impacted by the ongoing effects of “The Age of Austerity, Degradation, and Warfare” than many others. Our lives of relative privilege in the U.S. also mean that we have farther to fall, and indeed many are finally feeling the fuller brunt of the crisis. Is it too late? Definitely not. Do we need to act immediately? Unquestionably, yes.
Enter the “Occupy Everything” Movement
Fanning out from Wall Street, the symbolic epicenter of speculative greed and financial brinksmanship, the concept of occupying space en masse to protest social inequality and environmental devastation has proliferated across the nation. This is, indeed, becoming a full-fledged “occupation” — which is a doubly poignant notion, considering that one of the trigger issues in the movement is unemployment and a rampant sense of job insecurity. People without work are literally finding a true occupation.
None of this has happened in a vacuum, and undoubtedly there have been many precursors and warning signs of the coming struggle, from the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 to the more recent mobilizations in Arizona against austerity and racism. Most notable perhaps is the Wisconsin example, which demonstrated the utility of broad-based “people power” actions in pushing back against the ravages of an economic system gone haywire. Critical observers might be able to plausibly say that they could even see this coming…
Yet this is clearly new and different. People aren’t just rattling their cages, but are demanding that the penitentiary be dismantled altogether. This doesn’t appear to be some parochial, NIMBY, single-issue protest that will melt away once a few minor concessions (or outright bribes) are granted to the affected class. It likely won’t be beaten back by pepper spray and billy clubs, since you can’t kill an idea. No, this moment of escalating occupation seemingly calls into question the entire imperialist operation, following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insight that merely “flinging a coin to a beggar” is insufficient since “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Wall Street, You’re Fired!
We’ve been waiting a long time for this, wondering: how much pain do Americans have to feel before they join the majority of the planet’s inhabitants in recognizing the inherent injustice of a global system of production and consumption that pits the elites against everyone else and all of us against the earth itself? Our privilege, comfort, and cultural distractions have largely insulated us from the worst effects, including those that we are responsible for creating and visiting upon hapless, countless, nameless others. But there comes a point when even the bird in the gilded cage sees beyond the bars and recognizes its essential confinement.
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations seem to be eliciting precisely that response. Indeed, even my local (and generally conservative) paper gets it, as evidenced by this recent editorial:
The one mistake is for pundits to focus attention on the protesters themselves. That’s exactly what Wall Street and oil speculators want — to keep themselves off the hot seat. About 700 protesters were arrested this past Saturday but, to date, not a single arrest has been made from anywhere in the Wall Street districts regarding the Russian roulette they played with the lives of distant, faceless Americans spread out all over the country who are reeling in the wake of outright investor thievery and negligence.
A few years ago, such a statement would not have been forthcoming, or even possible. But in this climate — which is rapidly changing in real time, both politically and ecologically — it’s becoming safer for the mainstream to openly oppose the power elite. Such is the virtue of a popular uprising, and when it catches hold widely across all demographics in a given society (as evidenced in Egypt and other locales), major restructuring becomes possible. The challenge will be to sustain it in the face of repression and/or concessions; the test of this will be precisely what makes today’s uprising intriguing: its demands are potentially systemic and structural.
Thus, the aim is not to reform Wall Street (and its sponsors/allies within government, corporate America, and the military-industrial complex) but to tear down its misbegotten and historically tainted edifice altogether. No more profligate fatcats, unethical speculators, misery profiteers, or robber barons. Their sort of business is no longer welcome here; the exponential growth and expanding wealth gap model will cease operations immediately or be dismantled by the people who are suffering its indignities and depredations. Shades of one Mario Savio, circa 1964:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
In Case of Emergency, Break Glass?
Militant rhetoric notwithstanding, social movements have been schooled repeatedly on the double-edged nature of tactics perceived as confrontational or “violent” in any manner whatsoever. Smashing symbols of oppression has its appeal in a visceral sense, and can be used to galvanize energy around certain issues or targets — the archetypal example being the shattering of a few corporate windows in Seattle as a means of drawing attention to the previously clandestine workings of the World Trade Organization. But there’s a diminishing return involved, in which the direct act garners attention but mainly for the act itself without the larger context and specific grievances being equally reported. And this pattern clearly is more pronounced in the post 9/11 era, where even garden-variety acts of civil disobedience can raise the specter of being branded with the dreaded and media-enticing t-word.
On the other hand, dutifully marching in permitted rows and then going home to watch it on television doesn’t exactly “get the goods” either. Orchestrated acts of disobedience possess a choreographed quality that can likewise strip away any deeper communication of the salient issues. So how exactly does a movement in the modern era demonstrate its forcefulness and resolve without alienating others or courting official demonization in the process? How do we convey the gravity of the issues and our rightful frustrations without becoming the very things we’re struggling against — namely intolerance, militarism, domination, and coercion? Unquestionably, the use of “force” from below raises different ethical questions than when it’s deployed from above, yet in the minds of many undecided observers the distinction is murky.
After all, if my optimistic reading of the potential of the Occupation Movement is correct, the aim is to shift the paradigm rather than accomplish small reforms or win minor concessions. To accomplish this, it will take more than the energies of dedicated activists around the nation (although that in itself would be an excellent start). There will need to be a critical mass of people and communities resisting business-as-usual and forging new sets of relationships to supplant the old ones that have taken us to the brink of cultural and ecological survivability. The proliferation of #occupy hashtags in nearly every city and town is inspiring and potent — yet the movement still needs to reach beyond its current adherents to those wedded to the blind privilege of their manufactured, manipulated, medicated lives in the cradle of a dying empire.
A Bridge to Somewhere
This is the moment where a movement either peters out or finds its voice. The ruling elite can endure outbreaks of mass cage-rattling through a combination of repression, provocation, disinformation, and/or censorship. In the end, “the system” can always argue that it might not be perfect, but it’s the only game in town capable of meeting life’s needs for multitudes of people, and in any event the protestors are just spoiled kids blowing off steam with no real alternative at the ready. “700 arrested shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge” makes a great one-day headline, but if it isn’t soon followed by “700 new ways to feed your family and have productive, meaningful lives” it’s hard to sustain the public interest in this age of the 24-hour news cycle. Occupation is a strong tactic with definite therapeutic benefits, but it still requires that next (and perhaps harder) step of articulating #abetterworld and not merely #endempire.
The seeds are clearly in evidence: an ethical redistribution of wealth and power, sustainable and socially just lifeways, production for utility rather than profit, balancing human needs within the capacity of the biosphere, maximizing societal potential through opportunity and diversity, converting the waste of the war machine into the abundance of a peace economy, dismantling the architecture of oppression in favor of human and political rights, liberating the creativity of humankind from the shackles of eternal indebtedness, making education a universal blessing rather than an individual burden, halting the ravages of climate change, and restoring the planet’s life-giving properties by reintegrating self, society, and nature.
Occupying the spaces and places of power and privilege is an outstanding first step that crucially links the U.S. with the myriad popular struggles that have been underway for some time now around the world. It has the look and feel of a “thousand flowers blooming” and represents the combined best virtues of decentralization and solidarity alike. If there are folks reading this still undecided about the efficacy of Occupation, it’s at least worth wading out into the streets, since (as the saying goes) the only thing you have to lose is your chains. Let’s face it: the window of time in which to act is rapidly closing. Even if we got shafted by those before us, it’s still every generation’s responsibility to leave the world in better shape than we found it. Indeed, you might even say that this is our highest calling and most worthwhile occupation. Φ
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor for New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).