~by Aaron B.
Slowly but surely, the Occupy Wall Street protests are gaining the attention of the mainstream media. A New York Times story on global protest movements makes a passing mention of the protests (which are happening in its home city!), and MSNBC’s The Last Word ran a segment on an instance of police brutality against protestors.
What are we to make of the movement? On its website, OWS characterizes itself as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions[…and t]he one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” Clear enough. Through this website and their signs, the protestors set themselves up against the rich and those professions they identify with the top 1%—bankers, CEOs, and so on.
But because the movement is so decentralized and because they lack a positive project—part of the protestors’ declared purpose is to agree on a demand—it’s easy to think that this protest doesn’t mean anything. It’s fairly small, numbering a few thousands participants at its peak (though it will get a big boost in October as NYC transit workers join in), and it’s not going to dislodge any leaders or have any kind of immediate impact on policy. This sort of goal requires much more organization, planning, and support. Is Occupy Wall Street little more than an impotent expression of rage?
Perhaps, but I think this view misses a key point. As I said, protestors have taken to the streets to “talk to each other…[and] zero in on what our demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination.” These protests aren’t going to change policy, but they’re not trying to yet—they’re all about creating a collective consciousness, about drawing the line between rich, powerful Americans and the rest of us, “the 99%,” and about instilling a sense of identity and solidarity among this 99%.
This is a modest goal, but it’s important, and I think the “99%” formulation is a powerful one. It eschew religious, political, gender, and other divisions in favor of a roughly class-based division of society, which paints the 99% as unified, democratic, and just. It might be the beginnings of a vehicle to express the frustration and demands of all Americans who struggle. Building this image and identity is the necessary first step towards a successful, broad-based movement, and already it’s showing signs of progressing. Hopefully more unions will follow the transit workers in becoming involved. Mike Konczal has made a few suggestions about what the central demand of the 99% should be. The movement seems to be spreading to D.C., and maybe even other cities.
So I’m optimistic. This won’t be Madison, and it won’t be the United States’ Arab Spring, but it might be something big. Check out the We Are The 99 Percent tumblr, and keep your eyes peeled.