Occupy All Streets

04 November 2011 Ideas Politics

This post first appeared as a 2-part article in Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s official newspaper.

On Sep. 17, I was poking around the Internet when I came across news of a protest organized by Anonymous, the hacktivist collective known for circumventing state censorship to help the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. I was led to a video — a call to action, really — calling on New Yorkers to set up camp in Wall Street to protest the corporate dominance of American politics.

The video opened with this observation about Barack Obama: “People say things when they are running because they don’t know the powers that really control the house they are going to live in.”

Anonymous is an organization (if you can call it that) that I had heard plenty about, but I didn’t quite know how it functioned. I knew of its amoebic leadership structure, its non-centralized, non-hierarchical decision-making. And on Sep. 17, I watched that system in action for the first time.

A self-organized movement

What amazed me most in the early days of Occupy Wall Street was the consensus-based general assemblies. The crowd numbered in the hundreds that first night, and it was difficult to hear who was speaking. So the demonstrators used a call-and-answer format, complete with hand gestures, where each sentence the speaker said was echoed back in unison by hundreds of voices. In this way, people at the very rear of the crowd were still able to hear what was going on.

Hearing the multitude of voices, young, old, male, and female, all shouting the same thing, gave me goosebumps. It was the voice of revolution:

— “I propose,”
— “I propose,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,”
— “That we sleep on the sidewalks of Wall Street tonight,
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “Which is legally permitted,”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.”
— “As long as we don’t obstruct the entire width of the sidewalk.

I watched the first hours of the occupation unfold on a live streaming video site, where someone was broadcasting from their camera phone. After a while, the phone battery was about to die and he (or she) directed viewers to another demonstrator’s video channel, where the broadcasting resumed from someone else’s phone. This is self-organization at its finest.

Expansion and loss of focus

The first few days of Occupy Wall Street were remarkably focused on the issue of corporate control. Protesters rallied against the injustices carried out by American banks that led to the recession.

Since then, support for the movement has exploded — along with the number of issues people are protesting about. With the massive amount of people that have joined the movement in just about every major city in the world, the original message has fallen apart. No clear demands are evident anymore, aside from a general feeling of leftist discontent. I heard a protestor in Washington, D.C. clamouring for “a crowdsourced rainstorm of slogans.”

As support for the protest went global, Oct. 15 was agreed upon for the launch of the international Occupy movement. By this time, there were far too many issues on the table. A New York occupier said, “We have about three times as many agendas as there are people here!”

In Toronto, the Canadian Auto Workers union, along with other representatives of organized labour, threw their support behind the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, this provided an easy way for critics to write off the movement. With the hand of big unions seemingly behind the scenes, Occupy’s credibility as a bottom-up people-power movement was diminished.

It wasn’t just big labour diluting the message. In New Mexico, advocates for aboriginal rights changed the name of their protest to (Un)occupy, to acknowledge that the U.S. is actually stolen indigenous land that was “occupied” by settlers.

This movement didn’t start out as a rallying cry about income inequality or unemployment or aboriginal rights. As far as I can tell, an end to corporate dominance was the original goal. But this movement evolved rapidly and is now going in a thousand directions at once.

Easily misunderstood

Without a central rallying point (except for perhaps the vague notion of “the 99 per cent”), critics of the Occupy movement are able to see what they want to see in these protests. “Stop protesting and get a job,” has been a common refrain. The National Post published an editorial deriding the movement for complaining about inequality in one of the richest countries.

The problem with the vastness of Occupy is that it allows people to protest whatever they want, and it allows the critics to pick whatever easy targets they want. In the mainstream media’s analysis of Occupy, different narratives can breeze right past each other without actually trying to justify their arguments or address what’s really happening. Bill O’Reilly, a political commentator for Fox News, even managed to conjure up a scary storyline about the anti-semitic intent of Occupy Wall Street.

This knee-jerk reaction from right-wing media outlets is actually more disorganized and ridiculous than the Occupy protests themselves. For the first time since the Cold War, free-market capitalism is being challenged en masse. The conservative establishment  has been caught off guard and it’s not quite sure what to do as the protests gain momentum.

What’s most disappointing is that the reactionary comments by the likes of Bill O’Reilly confuses the issue for people that are trying to figure out what Occupy is all about.

So where do we go from here? Amid the misconceptions and lack of focus, I believe that real change is brewing. But it’s not the kind of change you’d expect. This isn’t the rise of the New Left. Rather, it’s the start of a new political paradigm.

Moving towards concrete change

If the Occupy movement is going to continue gaining momentum, protesters in individual cities will have to coalesce around specific rallying points. In Canada, for example, we could demand corporate lobbyists be prohibited from contacting Members of Parliament. There is a specific law, the Lobbying Act, that governs such behaviour in Canada and could be easily amended to explicitly prohibit certain actions.

And this is really my crucial argument: ideally, the Occupy movement will drive real change. But to get there, we need to formulate concrete demands that the media and our politicians can understand.

I would even go so far as to specifically target a single MP (say Charlie Angus, the NDP’s ethics frontman) and petition them to put forward a private member’s bill to limit the power of lobbyists in Ottawa.

Herein lies the difficulty: It’s easy to rally around big ideas like “corporate welfare.” But when you start getting into specifics, people lose interest. I’ve seen it first-hand when I was advocating for a change to our voting system during the last two elections. People’s eyes glaze over trying to get their heads around the Schulze method of the Single-Transferable Vote, even if it would be fairer than the current electoral system.

I’m not saying that everybody on the front line needs to be an expert — there isn’t an effective protest in all of history that has accomplished that. But I am saying that the Occupy movement needs to start getting more specific if it wants to make a difference.

Not one movement, but many

As I look back to the first weekend of Occupy Wall Street, I can see that consensus-based decision-making was effective and focused because of the relatively small number of demonstrators. And while it was a stunningly impressive display of getting things done, that model doesn’t scale well to a global movement with tens of thousands of supporters.

But why should it? The issues in New York are different than those in Toronto, Rome, or London. Perhaps Occupy should not be seen as one massive, aimless, confused protest. Perhaps the multiplicity of views is just a reflection of unique local issues.

This is why I say Occupy is not the rise of the New Left. This isn’t a binary reaction to conservatism per se. It’s safe to say that people are generally distrustful of The Man and have very different ideas of how to change things for the better.

If there’s anything the Occupy protesters don’t want, it’s to be labelled and categorized. In a New York City General Assembly on Oct. 23, Occupy Wall street participants rejected the idea of “aligning ourselves with an ideological Left.” So when journalists speak of Occupy as a springboard for the resurgence of left wing politics, I’m not buying it.

The start of something new

The issues that protesters have been dealing with over the past month and a bit have been very pragmatic: finding places to sleep, getting food, cooperating with police, organizing marches. I think that the real social solutions coming out of the Occupy movement will be equally practical and locally-focused.

This is not the Arab Spring 2.0. There are no clear calls for constitutional reform, no demands for leaders to step down. Occupy is not a protest against dictators. A radical overhaul of civic institutions will not materialize from this movement. At least, not right away.

Occupy has given people a reason to self-organize. It has formed a foundation for progressive social change. The movement is made up of lawyers, musicians, students, tradespeople, activists, optimists, pessimists, and anarchists. These people have created a common language that cuts across cultures and allows people from different walks of life to work together for a brighter future.

The seeds of revolution have been planted. Expect those ideas to bloom and mature in their own way, from the bottom up.

Sam Nabi

Post a comment