Occupy Wall Street’s growing pains


I’m encouraged to see that some of the people involved in the pre-GA decision-making process of Occupy Wall Street are looking towards putting forth a demand. Although I thought a lot of the claims that the movement needed a policy brief or the like were foolish—there is a real value in ambiguity when one’s trying to amass a broad-base of appeal (just ask the President)—I think it’s necessary for #ows to grow and evolve; it cannot be as intellectually stationary as it is physically.

And now is the time for the protestors to start unveiling, in slightly more concrete terms, what their vision for a better country involves. Because the honeymoon won’t last forever—pretty soon, the movement is going to stop being new, fun and interesting and is going to start being old, drawn-out, and increasingly-defined by its opponents. It’s as inevitable a part of civil disobedience as the early waves of idealism and excitement.

So now’s the time, while the iron’s still hot, to lay down a marker and acknowledge that although the movement may be uninterested in fully integrating itself into the political order, it will nevertheless have to partner with some players in “the system” if it’s going to achieve something of value. It doesn’t have to sign itself up as an arm of the Democratic Party or a sub-division of MoveOn, etc.; but if it hopes to see real changes, it’ll need sympathetic government partners.

Yet as this excellent Mother Jones piece from Josh Harkinson (whose Twitter feed has been an invaluable resource throughout the protests) shows, it’s quite obvious that not everyone down at Zuccotti Park actually wants to get something done. For some, adolescently self-righteous posturing is the real goal:

Many veteran occupiers believe that making specific demands would be counterproductive, while others are working hard to craft concrete proposals they think everyone can agree on.

One of the latter is Eric Lerner, a middle-aged physicist and active member of Occupy Wall Street’s Demands Working Group, which on Sunday voted to push for a New Deal-style work program funded largely by ending America’s wars and taxing the rich. “I think among the general public, this would have enormous support,” Lerner says. “The biggest need in this country and in the world at this time is jobs.”

The Demands group, first publicized yesterday by the New York Times, hasn’t shared its proposal until now. The plan would involve the federal government raising about $1.5 trillion in new revenue and using it to create 25 million new public-sector jobs paying union-level wages. It would put Americans to work building bridges, roads, and affordable housing; providing free public transportation and free university education for all; staffing a single-payer health care system; and pursuing clean-energy research.

“We are talking about direct public employment, where you are working for the government—everything from wielding a shovel to educating engineers,” says Lerner, who drew inspiration from the Depression-era Civil Work and Works Progress Administrations. The 35 members of the Demands Group will vote Tuesday afternoon on how to build support for the plan before taking it up with the General Assembly, the open-ended group that serves as the protest’s governing body. […]

“That whole big desire for demands is something people want to use to co-opt us,” said a longtime camper with red glasses and red hair who goes by the name Ketchup. She was speaking yesterday afternoon across the street from Zuccotti Park to a meeting of occupiers that she’d organized to fight the Demand group’s plan. “If anyone is attempting to speak for OWS, that’s bullshit,” she said, noting that organizers of the Demands group hadn’t spent much time at the park or respected its meetings. She supports the competing Liberty Square Blueprint, a kitchen-sink manifesto that eschews demands for loosely defined goals. […]

The blueprint’s 11 core “visions” for the movement include broad concepts such as embracing open-source technology, ending all wars, eliminating “discrimination and prejudice,” and reappropriating “our business structures and culture, putting people and our earth before profit.”

What a bunch of nonsense that blueprint is; and the kind of nonsense that’s most likely to come from someone who neither appreciates nor understands real problems, true injustice.

Look—I get that, for “Ketchup,” putting scores of unemployed people back to productive work isn’t quite as thrilling as eliminating “discrimination and prejudice” or “putting people and our earth before profit”; but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that for someone whose unemployment insurance is about to run out, may soon be evicted, and struggles weekly to hold onto enough money to feed their kids every night, a co-optation that leads to stable employment might not be such “bullshit.”

What I hope a sufficient number of the people deeply involved with #ows understand is that the initial outburst of energy—and the ensuing adrenaline-fueled sense of empowerment it brings—is in many ways the least important, the least noble element of social protest. It’s something the protestor does to feel good about herself. And that’s important! But it’s important because it’s impossible to take that next move, towards actually effecting change, without that underlying self-confidence. It’s a means, not an end.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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