Why #OccupyWallSt?

Lindsay Beyerstein

#OccupyWallSt is very good at two things: staying put and social media. The occupation of Liberty Plaza is capturing people’s imagination because it has lasted so long and because protesters have been so good at livestreaming their own content and disseminating it online.

Malcolm Harris offers a thoughtful but sympathetic critique of the tactics behind the occupation of Liberty Plaza. He argues that the protest is failing to accomplish the two main goals one might have for occupying a plaza in the first place: disrupting your enemy’s operations, or making a big show of commandeering his space for your own enjoyment.

With no official leaders or demands, it’s difficult to say what the goal of #OccupyWallSt is. I agree that it’s not accomplishing either of Harris’s goals, but I think it is achieving something remarkable all the same.

When I arrived at the park on Monday, I was struck by the colorful mosaics of signs laid out on the pavement. The sea of signs serves to command space in a park that’s open to everyone. Well-socialized individuals are reluctant to step onto territory that has been marked off this way.

Nobody is trying to enforce message discipline. Each sign is an atomic, idiosyncratic statement unto itself. From Eat the Bankers” to Bring Back the Glass Steagall Act,” to Soil is Lost 20 Times Faster Than It Can Be Replenished” to The Koch Brothers Belong Here” on a dog kennel. One particularly memorable sign addressed fracking, the right to health care, Troy Davis, corporate welfare, and mountaintop removal.

Despite the heterogenous messaging, Wall Street has definitely been named as the bad guy. Everyone I talked to had a theory about how the dominance of Wall Street/​corporate money in politics generally was the ultimate cause of whatever social problem they were highlighting. The Ron Paul guys and the anarchists had very different theories of how Wall Street was wrecking society, but here they were.

This crazy quilt of signs is a metaphor for the strengths and limitations of this kind of leaderless action. What the signs said was less important than the fact that they were there, filling space.

The activists standing in Liberty Plaza are placeholders. It doesn’t matter whether their signs say Report Your Boss to the IRS” or Build a Space Elevator.” Their job is to fill the space and mark the time while the idea of occupying Wall Street is marketed to a much wider audience on the internet.

People at home can project whatever they want onto these leaderless demonstrators. Right now, a lot of people believe that Wall Street is the problem and they are thrilled to see evidence that large numbers of activists are angry enough at Wall Street to occupy a plaza for days at a time.

This is the best a group of leaderless protesters surrounded by police could possibly hope to do. It is a real accomplishment.

There is currently no movement – grassroots or otherwise – that could take on Wall Street and win in a decisive showdown, a la Tahrir Square.

OccupyWallSt will never accomplish that. For one thing, victory would require organization, and as Malcolm Harris points out, the worst place to organize a revolution is in a concrete plaza surrounded by police with video cameras. For another, the movement would need to grow exponentially based on very broad-based appeal to the people who are suffering the most in this economy. Unfortunately, the prevailing patchouli and street theater aesthetic is not going to do the trick.

At least OccupyWallSt challenges us to think about what it would really take to win a fight like this. As my friend pointed out, everybody thinks somebody should be occupying Wall Street.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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