Autocritiquing Occupy Wall Street

Constructive criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and occasional snark, from the Left. Contributions and comments welcome:

Mollifying the Radical Drummer-Boys: Another Incremental Step Towards World Revolution

Today, OWS protestors once again narrowly escaped eviction from Liberty square, a move threatened by a local community board in response to the movement’s apparent inability to regulate its drummers (who, according to the OWS website, “feel that they are bringing rhythm to the revolution and have a voice that must be heard”). N+1 published a hilarious OWS memo reporting internal disputes on the matter, leaked to them by an involved activist (who contributed the gloomy heading “OWS is over after Tuesday”). Not parody: 

Friends, mediation with the drummers has been called off. It has gone on for more than 2 weeks and it has reached a dead end. The drummers formed a working group called Pulse and agreed to 2 hrs/day at times during the mediation, and more recently that changed to 4 hrs/day. It’s my feeling that we may have a fighting chance with the community board if we could indeed limit drumming and loud instrumentation to 12-2 PM and 4-6 PM, however that isn’t what’s happening.

Last night the drumming was near continuous until 10:30 PM at night. Today it began again at 11 AM. The drummers are fighting among themselves, there is no cohesive group. There is one assemblage called Pulse that organized most of the drummers into a group and went to GA for formal recognition and with a proposal.

Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, and disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not ‘on her side’ “Uncle Tom”, “the 1%”, “Barbie” “not Palestinian enough” “Wall Street politicians” “not black enough” “sell-outs”, etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.

At this point we have lost the support of allies in the Community Board and the state senator and city electeds who have been fighting the city to stave off our eviction, get us toilets, etc. On Tuesday there is a Community Board vote, which will be packed with media cameras and community members with real grievances. 

The memo further suggested a method of restricting the drummers:

 We’re in serious need of bodies here.  The drumming will happen daily from 12-2 and 4-6pm, that’s OK.  But that means that we need folks in these shifts: 2-4 PM: people here to make sure drumming doesn’t start. 5:45–8 PM: ppl here to make sure drumming stops at 6 PM sharp and doesn’t start again. 8–10 PM: ppl here to make sure drumming doesn’t start.

This is an all-call. Really really need help, tonight. There are some fabulous drummers here who have been in mediation with OWS and the community board for weeks. There are a small handful of drummers who have been violent, agro, and committed to playing as loud as they can, for as long as they can (until 11 PM this weekend).

The crisis was averted last minute when the newly-formed OWS drummer’s union, Pulse, agreed to limit their self-expression to certain hours. N+1: “The proposal was approved by consensus by the General Assembly, with applause and rejoicing on all sides. One of our observers said there hadn’t been such happiness and relief since the victory over eviction.” And that was only a week ago!  


Police Intervention: The X-factor

Footage from Oakland, last night: local police disperse a thousand-strong demonstration using tear gas and flash grenades. The march was intended to reclaim Frank Ogawa plaza, which served as a base for two weeks of protests until police cleared it before dawn (arresting 75). The protesters were headed for city hall, vowing to retake their camp. A small group scuffled with police not far from the city centre, prompting several arrests and the above military-style intervention.

This is the worst police violence the occupy movement has incurred, so far. It will be interesting to see how this show of excessive force affects the Oakland chapter. Exposure to state violence can radicalize a protest movement — to the exposed, the mere threat of state violence, the foundation of our public order, loses some of its deterrent capabilities.


Rightwing-media Hit Jobs: Part 1

Media org: Bloomberg

Story titleOccupy Wall Street Knows Not What It Does Hurting Local Jobs.  

Charge: Businesses near Zuccotti Park are suffering as a result of protests.

Evidence: Reporter overheard a handful of nearby business owners complain about dwindling foot traffic.

Shortcomings: The charge is baseless as well as feeble. The writers bury a concession deep in the article that should have scrambled the story (“some businesses have benefited from the influx of protesters and curious tourists”). Bloomberg later updated the article, as the initial hit-job had apparently failed, adding an irrelevant sentence about an essay Adbusters (one of the initiators of the protest) published in 2004, which “critics called…anti-Semitic”.

Is that all you’ve got? Next!



On Incoherence & its Virtues

When the mainstream media finally started covering the Wall Street protests several weeks into the sit-in, transitioning overnight, as Jon Stewart put it, from blackout to circus mode, they dwelled heavily on the apparent incoherence of the demonstrators’ message. Cable news producers dashed around Liberty Square to find out what the protesters wanted and could not discern a clear line. Many of their pundit colleagues discussed these findings with a hint of derision. Though the charge of incoherence wasn’t entirely off — the signs on hand in Liberty Square did (and do) address a wide array of grievances — the focus on it came from a cynical angle. But so goes our horse-race school of political journalism: it compels reporters to view electoral success as legitimation and judge activist movements not by the validity of their grievances but by their ability to compete in the existing political marketplace. Of course such coverage favors well-funded — and, accordingly, well-organized — movements like the Tea Party over genuine grassroots protests like Occupy Wall Street. Mainstream reporters are used to astroturf and, for reasons of convenience, many of them prefer it. 

Of course, the Tea Party also arrived on the scene with a muddle of grievances and messages. But their corporate backers and national leadership overrode them, and lent them a sense of coherence by clearly defining the president as the opponent. Our target is more opaque. The banks and the finance system may be vastly unpopular amongst Americans, but very few of us understand their structures or can articulate a wide-reaching critique of their practices or conduct. Based on my conversations in Zuccotti Park this is also true of many of the protestors. Unlike the handful of libertarians I encountered, most self-identified leftists on site lack a concrete ideological basis. This is a further reason for the movement’s incoherence: they can list social problems brought about by unbridled capitalism, but lack the framework to criticize its inherent downsides, instead defining themselves by niche areas of activism. This rootlessness and fragmentation, characteristic of the American left, is one of the legacies of cold war red-baiting. 

 OWS is at once a reflection of this problem and an opportunity to change it. With all their niche grievances assembled in large fonts, and activists on site to discuss them, participants in this movement may be able to gain a more general perspective on what is plaguing this country. Ideally, I think, our uprising should be as much about internal discussion as it is about public outreach. Indeed I think it is safe to say that the success of that outreach depends to a large part on the quality of our collective self-education.



"Necessity fuels a revolution, not moral argument"

Anti-war agit prop, 2003

Protestors in Zuccotti Park explain to The Atlantic why Bush era anti-war protests failed:

"The anti-war movement wasn’t based on a kind of material self-interested behavior the way that this is," says Jonathan Chabrier, a Brooklyn middle-school teacher who has been involved in the Occupy Wall Street, and who helped organize anti-war protests while studying for a masters’ degree at The New School. "Occupy Wall Street is people responding to the austerity, cuts in social programs and unemployment that’s everywhere. The anti-war movement is more of an ethical kind of commitment."  Ellis Roberts, an unemployed former sanitation worker and self-identified communist who has been living in a corner of Zucotti Park called "Camp Class War," agreed that Occupy Wall Street has an immediacy that the anti-war movement lacked. 

"Necessity fuels a revolution, not moral argument," he said. "For the middle class, the economic situation is an inconvenience. But if the poor tighten their belts anymore, we’ll be cut in half." 

Goldi Merhige, a musician and former anti-war activist in his mid-30s who came to Zucotti Park on Friday morning, had a more blunt assessment of the relative success and failure of both movements: “People care about money more than about other people’s suffering in this country,” he said.


Establishment vs. Disestablishment

New York Magazine hosted a discussion between former governor/client 9 Eliot Spitzer and Wall Street protestor/grad student Manissa Maharawal. Both inhabit parallel universes and suffer from grave limitations, but their unlikely introduction makes for fascinating conversation. A must-read!


The 99%: The Difference Between Broke and Poor


The Wall Street Journal has a fun little interactive feature that tells you what “percent” you are based on income, i.e whether you should be dragged through the streets by your silk pantaloons or feast on the champagne-infused flesh of the rich. A friend of mine posted the link on Facebook with the comment: “I’m in the bottom 1%. I <3 grad school.”

I clicked through and was reminded why the “we are the 99%” rhetoric bothers me so much. The feature ostensibly seeks to highlight the very real class differences that exist within Occupy Wall Street’s 99% movement, but does so using the same flawed methodology by which that opaque number was reached in the first place. Users are asked to simply plug in their income, and their “percent” is calculated with no consideration for the other variables that contribute to class such as education, health, housing, type of work, and degree of self determination.

As a result, someone like myself, a single, white, college-educated woman with a supportive family and a passport who chooses to work in a creative field, can be classified in the bottom 10%, while a single parent with several dependents, no health insurance and making slightly more is considered middle class. Moreover, the data used in these calculations is based on tax filings and excludes the poorest sections of society, including undocumented workers, who, if they were taken into account, would make us all richer by comparison. Despite the current economic downturn, being white, healthy and educated means upward mobility is within your reach, and automatically places you on top, regardless of your actual income. If you are white, healthy, educated and don’t have money, you are broke, not poor.

I brought up my issues with the “99%” to my friend who had posted the link, and she readily agreed, although she is (and should be) still angry about being thousands of dollars in debt for a degree that will probably never pay itself off. She also pointed out that the Occupy spokesman on the recent cover of New York Magazine went to Oberlin.

It’s not that overqualified, underemployed people don’t have a right to be pissed off, or that the majority shouldn’t be united by outrage against a system that is rigged to favor a superwealthy minority, but white college grads claiming to speak for the disenfranchised masses isn’t solidarity–it’s appropriation. — ML

[This post has been amended.]


The Advantages of Disillusionment

Our political system is rigged and it is working very well for the moneyed interests who rigged it. As such, our ability as citizens to influence core policy is very limited. Their power structure is well insulated. Paradoxically, though, for it to continue its smooth run, it is instrumental that the educated classes entertain illusions of influence. Elections serve that purpose, and when those cease to produce the desired result, or promises are broken, the disappointed can replenish their optimism in protest movements that are eventually co-opted by their proximate establishment party. Accordingly, OWS currently doesn’t pose much of a threat to the corporate-government consortium. This, ironically, has much to do with the protestors belief in their own ability to influence and reform the system.

This tempered optimism is reflected in the tenor of the demonstrations. One of the most widely echoed chants during last Saturday’s march on Times Square was, “Whose streets? Our streets!” But this was aspirational rather than true: the protestors were sitting in between police enclosures, on streets divied up by a handful of corporations. These were very much their streets. This was decidedly not what democracy looks like. OWS would be far more threatening to the consortium incapacitating our democratic process and disenfranchising a large majority of the American people if they were to acknowledge their own ineffectuality and inform the public about it, rather than overstating their empowerment.

This wouldn’t spawn as many irresistable slogans, and the collective mood would be in the toilet, but it would make for a far more damning message. In order to change a reality, one must first recognize it. — LDB


The Other Occupations

An Iraqi man comforts his son at a holding center for prisoners of war in An Najaf, Iraq, 31 March 2003. AP photographer Jean-Marc Bouju

There is an undeniable correlation between the manifold forms of injustice that the US wreaks on its own people and the populations of other countries, and the dismal economic situation in which we find ourselves. A history of tolerating injustice against others has bred a culture of impunity. Protesters who are now furious that the system is rigged to benefit a few at the expense of the many need to also ask themselves: Do we only care when our own lives are directly affected? Would things have ever gotten this bad had we mustered the appropriate determination and outrage when others were getting the shit end of the American stick— the incarcerated and their families; Iraqis and Afghanis; tortured “enemy combatants” who are denied due process; Chileans and El Salvadorans, to name but a few?

Opposing the injustices wreaked overseas by the US government is not only a moral prerogative; it is also inextricably intertwined with our right as citizens to demand accountability for our tax dollars, much of which goes towards foreign military aid to support oppressive and aggressive regimes or proxy wars. While in the narrow electoral arena of bipartisan politics, it is still considered “political suicide” to question defense spending, OWS must be bold about changing the conversation: we want social spending on education and health care, not on military bases and occupations.