Saturday, October 8, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, via the Square

I'm veering far out of my comfort zone by going within ten feet of current events on this blog; but the Occupy Wall Street protest set up camp today in Washington Square Park, so the current events are now within a stone's throw from my office. (Metaphorically, of course. Nobody's throwing stones. Not yet, anyway.) The tide of the twenty-first century is, once again and perhaps inexorably, lapping at the gates of my thirteenth-century oasis.

I went to return some library books and take a walk today, and there were eight mounted police officers between my apartment and the library, scores that I could see on foot and on motorbikes, and police cars and vans lining the perimeter of the park.  Normally, regardless of where I go walking, I have to go up the western edge of the park. Not today. I took a detour up Greene Street to 8th Ave because I didn't even want to be on the edge of the park if the police started arresting people. I wondered whether it might be worth taking some photographs; but again, my desire not to get arrested won the day. This struck me at first as terribly cowardly. The woman going out of her way to avoid a false arrest is not the woman I thought I would be. Right up to the time I decided to forsake modernity for the middle ages, I wanted to be a hot-shot journalist who would set the world on fire by running into the heart of all the places that every sane person was fleeing, who would afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and who would most definitely go to jail and rot away there if need be to defend the First Amendment.

I don't think that I've changed, though; instead, it's that I'm simply not compelled by this protest and so I'm not willing to risk anything to make a point with respect to it. Not as a protestor and not as a photographer or observer. If I'm going to get arrested to make a point about police power, I also want, tangentially for the arrest to be related to a cause I really support. (Or alternatively, I can imagine being willing to be arrested while photographing or observing a rally for a cause I truly abhorred.) This cause? There is no cause. I wasn't annoyed with the police for this state of affairs, even though I am well aware of the allegations that there have been many, many improper arrests over the course of this vigil.  Instead, I was cross that the protestors were essentially forcing me to choose between living an expression of my deep belief in the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and getting onboard with one of my great bugaboos, overenthusiastic but sloppy thinking.

A protest with no goal is not going to end with results. A bunch of people in a park with no specific, coherent demands and no real plan of action is not going to command the attention of anyone in a position to effect change. Down with the establishment, full stop is not a viable protest platform. For all the nods in the rhetoric to the Arab spring, the American protesters' attention seems to have shifted before they noticed that the protests in Egypt may have accidentally made things worse. That's not to say that the Egyptian uprising shouldn't have happened. It should have. Mubarak was a kleptocrat and a maniacal dictator. And it's not to say that the current protests shouldn't happen. They should. The big banks, with government collusion, have wrecked our livelihoods and the basic sense of equal justice under the law that we still like to think is our birthright. It's simply to say that down with the establishment is a meaningless proposition when it is not coupled with an idea of what should go up in its place.

So, to the protesters: When you get that figured out, I'll be marching and getting arrested right there with you. But until then, please, I'd just like the park back.

Edited on 10/20/11 to add: I can't even tell for sure if this is a sincere aspect of the protest or whether it is an elaborate performance or satire, but assuming for a moment the former,  if an offshoot movement is protesting museums' limited purchasing repertoire from amongst current working artists as a form of cultural oppression, then why, oh why, are they "occupying" a museum that doesn't have a contemporary art collection? I'm utterly done waiting for this protest to start being sensible.

1 comment:

  1. Two things: Yes, there is not a coherent demand coming from the protests - yet - and while I respect your right to want to withhold judgment and not join them until they do, I think it is a mistake to think that this is a good reason to dismiss them or believe that they are naive.

    These protests are anti-hierarchical by design -- they are specifically aimed at the abuse of the individual by those in power, and so they abjure leader-driven structures of power for their own organization. Decisions are being made by consensus rather than by leaders or even by majority votes. This necessarily means that things move slowly, are decided slowly, but it is an integral part of the community and (dare I say it) the political movement that is slowly forming down there.

    And this is not to say that there are not concrete demands being made. The protesters have released a consensus-created statement of principles, and are working on more focused demands. Meanwhile, a Forbes poll of the protests has found that the overwhelming majority of the protesters agree on several specific things that should be done, including debt relief, the overturning of the supreme court decision that allows corporations to be regarded as people, and the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that separates commercial and investment banking activities (and whose repeal arguably led to the current crisis).

    Again, I completely respect your right to distance yourself from the movement and to judge it based on its results rather than its beginnings. Take your time: I'm pretty sure that, absent more direct police action, they have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon. But if you are really curious as to what is happening there, I do urge you to come to Zuccotti Park -- where there is little chance of being arrested, at least when there is no march going on -- and see "horizontal" democracy in action.