Who Occupies the Occupiers?

I’m glad Mike Drew wrote a guest post. Mike’s comments are consistently the ones I meditate over most (which explains why I rarely respond to them while the thread is still active.), and Mike’s guest post is like the king of Mike Drew Comments. I have lots of things to say in response to his post, which ties into my chosen blogging theme here of unemployment and poverty in America.

Mike writes of Occupy Wall Street:

“It’s an occupation designed to disrupt the working status quo of cities because of lingering social and economic issues that the group feels are being neglected.”

I agree, somewhat, and this is what disturbs me most about the Occupy movement. Now, the standard old man retort to Drew’s point is: ‘what if everyone started disrupting shit because they didn’t like what’s going on? The whole world would be covered with unproductive whiners.’ Ultimately this idea finds its most cogent expression in the phrase: the perfect is the enemy of the good. I think this species of criticism is a fair critique of the Occupy movement. Moreover, I’m curious to what degree the movement’s leadership believes that if it can create a big enough, an obtrusive enough, problem, well, we would just have to put our full civilizational capacity towards solving it, wouldn’t we? (Mattathias Schwartz’s exhaustive New Yorker piece that came out today touches on this a little bit.)

On top of this, people who are working at the margins (i.e the people who get hired after months of searching for a job only to get laid off again due to budget cuts) might resent the Occupy movement for disrupting the status quo, since the occupiers apparently already have the luxury to live in tents, while the most likely to be affected negatively by corporate retreat and the most likely to gain from a return to stability are the most marginalized. Meanwhile, the enemies the Occupy movement truly targets are still firmly enshrined within their citadels of well-intentioned liberal legislation and old boy networks, immune to even the most disruptive of left-wing civil disobedience.

Mike’s post is a response to James Hanley, and Mike also writes:

“I get the sense that what (Hanley) is calling for is for them to abandon the confrontational, obnoxious, disruptive approach that they have used up to this point.”

I don’t know if Hanley’d call for that, but I’d definitely call for that, from a purely tactical perspective, and it’s because I support the core principles behind the Occupy movement. I had an interesting experience the other night, right after the NYPD ejaculated pure hatred onto the face of OWS: I hopped off the fence and felt my rusty pseudo-emotions almost stirred in support of the movement. I realized: no one sides with overly-obnoxious behavior, least of all indifferent-yet-still-one-person-one-vote-voting citizens of wealthy, bourgeois democracies whose most significant concern in life is whether to serve brie or camembert at the next meeting of the local gourmet group. Not that I’m sitting here vacillating over cheese, but I have more pressing concerns in my life than whether or not to support Occupy Wall Street, and this hypothetical I is inclined or conditioned to make crude, emotional or intuitive, one-off judgments about whatever irrelevant national political nontroversies are recursively force-fed to my senses by the all-seeing eye of our stultifying media-political-establishment-complex.

The first wave of anti-Iraq War protesters should have grasped the essential fact that no one is willing to overlook their methods for their cause unless that person is already behind their cause (i.e. being unpleasant will not win you friends, no matter how legitimate your grievances): in multiple calls for attention, anti-war protesters stuck coffee stirrers in parking meters throughout Boston, thereby disabling them and forcing municipal authorities to close down vast swathes of street parking for maintenance, annoying people who use parking meters (i.e. people who cannot afford a regular spot); a different group of anti-war protestors pretended to be dead at the bus stop of my university, affecting people waiting for the bus (i.e. poorer students and people who can’t afford cars); and finally they made a human chain across the bus route one day so no one could go to class, affecting students who go to class (i.e. students who are not majoring in binge drinking, Daddy’s trust fund, or cultural anthropology).

You bet your ass, most people who were inconvenienced by protesters did not think: “Hold on a tick! What are these people so upset about? Perhaps they have a legitimate grievance. The Iraq War? Even though that honest-seeming Colin Powell fella said that Saddam was dangerous and helping the al Qaedas? Well, my awareness has been raised! My duties as a citizen of this fragile democracy dictate that I shall have to go a-dispassionately a-researching… …Hey hey! That Bush sure is a foolish and reckless gent! And Cheney and Halliburton as well! I shall join the protesters in disabling parking meters and constructing human chains forthwith.” No, most people said, “Hey, What are these assholes doing? I fucking hate them. Why are they standing in my way?” Really, it shouldn’t be difficult to win a pr war against police brutality or the destruction of another country. Yet, the 99% has far less than 99% support.

“I have yet to see anyone from the outside offer them a single piece of what I consider to be good strategic advice, taking their interests and aims seriously, which is to say taking the time to try to understand what those are from their perspective.”

I’m pretty sure I did this above. To summarize: if you have a legitimate grievance, be respectful, be honest, don’t put your cause above other people’s livelihoods, especially in hard economic times, wait for the police or the authorities to disgrace themselves, rinse, lather, repeat. Slow, steady activism always wins the race. If you fail to do these things, don’t dehumanize those who do not support you. The problem isn’t (only) the class warfare; it’s the class on class crime.

“When more unruly avenues are being explored, suddenly our creaky institutions become beacons of the public will, and the only legitimate vein for expression of democratic impulses, as if the people relinquished the prerogative to take more direct democratic action when these wonderfully representative institutions were established.”

I consider this passage especially well-written, and the judicious use of the English language – more than anything else – is why I’m here and continue to hang around. The well-written sentence is something that, in our recent history, the left has owned, which is telling in a certain sense. One side has superior knowledge of theatrics, even if it consistently fails to see the full implications of its actions.

Mike gets it I think:

“It seems obvious to me that this movement was from the start a statement about the demonstrated unresponsiveness, corruption, and brokenness of those institutions and the prevailing procedural arrangements of our politics and their resulting inability to address the issues the movement is concerned with.”

If we look at the grand and obvious villains in the saga that stretches from the bank failures and the bailouts on down to Occupy Wall Street, what really obvious thing do they have in common with regard to Mike’s point above?

Most certainly, I agree that our institutions are broken – very little if any extralegal behavior led to the dire straights we now find ourselves in – but I don’t have any easy solutions to offer, and neither does AdBusters, I suspect. Reforming our governmental and economic institutions is a perpetual struggle, and one we – free citizens of a wealthy democracy – are lucky to have.

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38 thoughts on “Who Occupies the Occupiers?

  1. I’m not sure I understand the connection with Iraq.

    Also, how would your standards apply to the civil rights movement? A lot of people in Birmingham were just trying to get their morning coffee at the local restaurant; I’d imagine that, for them, those counter sit-ins were super inconvenient.

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    • That’s an interesting point about the Civil Rights movement. My thought would be that the large percentage of people who were torqued about not getting there morning mocha lattechino( or whatever they drank back then) fell into two groups. The first were likely to either be racists or support Jim Crow so there was no love to be lost ( and screw them anyway). The second supported the CR movement so they got how big a deal it was and just swallowed several packets of sugar. The CR movement had to tolerate a lot of hate and were in it for the long term so they just coped, wore there good suits and behaved in a dignified manner.

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      • This, basically. Also, with the CR movement the laws being violated were, largely, the very laws that were being protested.

        But the bigger point I think is that it’s not a very wise strategy to significantly inconvenience – and, let’s be honest- materially injure one or more of the very groups with whom you’re trying to express solidarity.

        If a protest movement is to be successful, it must at the very minimum treat those whom it purports to represent with a high degree of respect. If it does not, it will quickly discover that it does not, in fact, represent those groups.

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        • MarkT hits the nub here:

          “…with the [Civil Rights] movement the laws being violated were, largely, the very laws that were being protested.”

          Breaking an unjust law then accepting the consequences, in order to rally public sentiment against its injustice.  This is civil disobedience in a nutshell.

          Gandhi willfully broke the British “salt laws.”

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_March

          In the current crisis, #OWS is breaking no laws except those we have all agreed upon: we have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but not anywhere and when without limit, without concern for the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of others.

          Dude, you’re fucking up my business, my livelihood.  Hell, y’all are killing the grass in the park I used to have peaceful enjoyment of during my lunchtime. Your First Amendment rights end at ruining my peaceful enjoyment of the park.  Esp for what is months now.

          #Occupy is more conceptual than coherent.  Well, here’s a concept—the 99% want their lives and their park back.

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              • To avoid misunderstandings, I am not accusing Tom of being racist, or of intending the line of reasoning I took in this snark (he’s clearly not that kind of person).  I am only critiquing the value of using “ruining my enjoyment of the park” as a standard for regulating free speech.

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                • The context was “months at a time.”  Indeed, that’s what’s been happening: people want their park back.

                  Of course I wasn’t saying that a permitted protest on a single day or even a series of days isn’t allowable.  We have freedom of assembly, and it stands to reason we need to assemble somewhere.

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                  • I agree with Tom. There are a couple kinds of long-term “occupy” protests. In one type, the occupation has a specific goal that is directly connected to the occupation itself. I’m thinking specifically of the Bonus Army. Then there’s a long-term occupation that doesn’t have goals that are obviously connected to the space they’re occupying. This may not be the case with the actual NY protests, as they are occupying Wall Street itself, but how does occupying a campus lawn connect to big finance or the super-wealthy (unless your at Harvard, in which case, look in a fishin’ mirror, dude). I know the main point of a protest is to be seen and heard, but after a while all we’re seeing and hearing is, “We’re here, we have massive studen loan debt, get used to it!” I’m not sure that outweighs the rest of the public’s right to use those areas.

                    I don’t, however, think that gives the police the right to use the kind of force they’re using.

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    • The early days of Iraq War protests represent an utter failure to attract people to an otherwise righteous cause (as history showed), borne at least somewhat of collective antipathy to what was perceived as obnoxious self-righteousness. Occupy Wall Street is currently teetering on this brink.

      Granted, I probably should have more-explicitly praised OWS’s conduct thus far throughout the post and pressed home that the Civil RIghts Movement was so successful because it was a model for what I’m talking about, of slow, steady activism. (Read Malcolm Gladwell’s article on the topic from last year if you haven’t. It is still somewhat relevant here and a spectacular article in general.)

      The difference between the two – the Civil Rights Movement and OWS – is the key insight here, and I’m afraid lots of people seem to be missing it. OWS is potentially hurting the people it intends to help, by disrupting the normal economy. The Civil Right’s Movement successfully targeted establishments that were particularly hostile to blacks. I don’t think there is a fair comparison here.

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        • Here is a passage from the New Yorker article:

          “Lasn and White quickly hammered out a post-Zuccotti plan. White would draft a new memorandum, suggesting that Phase I—signs, meetings, camps, marches—was now over. Phase II would involve a swarming strategy of “surprise attacks against business as usual,” with the potential to be “more intense and visceral, depending on how the Bloombergs of the world react.”

          In Boston, for instance, Occupy Harvard recently took over Harvard Square, shutting down all traffic and preventing people from getting to work or home from work or to and from classes. I see these kinds of desperate stunts escalating in response to authorities’s desperate stunts and with it this attitude that we’re building towards a revolution. Just as people with weakened immune states get disproportionately sick when winter comes, so too do the economically vulnerable suffer disproportionately when stability is disrupted.

          I see the movement shifting it’s tactics towards the more aggressive in response to aggression and think it should be going in the opposite direction – of out-classing pepper-spray cop.

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    • The other important part of the sit-ins was they were doing something that they were arguing had every right to do – sit at lunch counter for a coffee (and similarly, sit anywhere they wanted on a bus, got to school, vote, etc)

      The actions *themselves* were cast a morally right (and they were!) even if (especially since) the current regime made  them illegal and thus disruptive.

      In contrast, no one thinks you should have an inallienable right to block traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, (for instance)

       

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  2. Wow, Chris.  Thank you for your kind words and your extraordinarily thoughtful response. I hold your writing in equally high regard.  Especially, thanks for the way your response takes up exactly the questions I raised.  (Not that there’d have been anything wrong if you’d reframed them to your liking.)

    Your thoughts deserve as much reflection as you gave to mine, and I continue to reflect.  While for the moment I may remain unpersuaded that yours is the best advice for the movement from its perspective, largely because in my view it remains just so difficult to conclude that one has arrived at an accurate understanding of that perspective, I do think I can now say that the last line of my post can be checked off: I think you have made the case here as convincingly as it can be made.

    I could try to explain why I remain unpersuaded, but I’m nototally sure it’s necessary.  I think these two posts stand each on its own as both point and counterpoint to the other, so I think I’ll just leave the debate there for now.

    But again, thank you for the extraordinarily attentive response.  I look forward to continuing to observe and discuss this movement, as well as various and sundry other matters, with you and the rest of the League.

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  3. Reason without passion has rarely led to societal change, especially for those already marginLized by society. Why should it be different this time? The Founding Fathers did not make freedom of assembly a fundamental right because it was convenient, after all.

    Not coincidentally, the occupy movement has done more toove the needle on the whole “shared sacrifice” boondoggle than Obama and the Democratic Party have done from within the system in more than two years.

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  4. “…if you have a legitimate grievance, be respectful…wait for the police or the authorities to disgrace themselves…”

    Looking at the pepper spray incident that is fresh on everyone’s mind – does this qualify as ‘respectful’ on the part of the protestors?

     

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  5. wealthy, bourgeois democracies whose most significant concern in life is whether to serve brie or camembert at the next meeting of the local gourmet group.

    Camembert. It’s a safer bet generally. Who doesn’t like it?

    The well-written sentence is something that, in our recent history, the left has owned, which is telling in a certain sense.

    This might be true, but damned if I know how you’d quantify something like that.

    One side has superior knowledge of theatrics, even if it consistently fails to see the full implications of its actions. 

    I take it you don’t see wearing colonial garb to a protest as good theatrics?

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    • Personally, I prefer a nice sharp white cheddar or – if I’m in the mood for something milder – gruyere. Runny cheeses kind of turn me off.

      I have no way of quantifying skill in the English language; except if you consider the political affiliations of experts in the humanities, which converges back on your territory. I do think the left tends to bring more passion to politics – they’ll always have their Ciceros (a “liberal pussy” as one of my Latin teachers put it).

      “I take it you don’t see wearing colonial garb to a protest as good theatrics?”

      You’ve got me there. That’s awesome.

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      • Oh God, gruyere is amazing. My wife is the expert in this area. I know beer and I make really good butter. She usually picks the cheeses.

        Political affiliations of humanities experts tend to be skewed by romantic attachments to the politics of their youth. Nevertheless, I keep telling people that it’s near impossible to be an academic in the humanities without being a thoroughgoing cultural conservative at heart, even though many would rather not admit it to themselves.

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  6. Chris, thoughtful post thanks! But I do take one exception

    “affecting students who go to class (i.e. students who are not majoring in binge drinking, Daddy’s trust fund, or cultural anthropology)”  Why pick on Cultural Anthropology? (full disclosure non-trust fund BA in Anthropology)

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    • I have nothing against cultural anthropology. Secrets of the Tribe is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in quite some time (since Grizzly Man, I’d say), and I find cultural anthropology to be a fascinating discipline. That being, said, drawing on my own experience, it seems like a lot of the students who didn’t really want to devote a lot of time to class loaded up on CA courses. 

      Being an interpretive discipline, CA is one of those courses that you take out what you put it – not unlike English or literature, and grades tended to be high because so much comes down to subjective interpretation. Of course, for people who want to party without failing out, CA was a good way to game the system, and this has nothing to do with the legitimacy or lack thereof of the subject matter.

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