We can protest too!

We can protest too!
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Leftists and hippies o’er the land have been up in arms as of late over a perceived media blackout regarding a multi-day protest of leftists and hippies in Wall Street. It’s been so ignored by the media, in fact, that there have been no shortage of stories about the blackout in the media. Funny how that goes.

Anyway, Wall Street has been occupied by these folks for over a week now, and by “occupied” we mean a bunch of people are camping out in Zuccotti Park, forming a little shanty town of blankets, signs, and tents, as you can see in online galleries like this one. As is often the case with these sorts of things, no one really agrees how many people are involved. The organizers themselves claim around 2,000 while the cops say more like a couple hundred. Much of the protester population is evidently very transient, so there’s that excuse.

What do they want? When do they want it? Who knows. In a profile of the protest that has gotten a lot of flak from protester supporters, The New York Times depicted an extraordinarily incoherent, “carnival” of random left-wing causes and interests, united only by a shared bohemian counter-culture. With dreadlocks, keffiyehs, bucket drums, and topless women a-plenty, the spectacle has been likened to Burning Man or a particularly campy anti-war rally. Their slogans have run the gamut from shrill anti-market rhetoric (“CAPITALISM DOESN’T WORK!”) to inane Internetings (“can i haz bailout to?”).

Apparently much of the impetus for the thing in the first place traces back to AdBusters magazine, who, back in June, explicitly called for a September occupation as a way to, uh, “help each other zero in on what our one demand will be.” AdBusters is actually based out of Vancouver, where I live, so I can say is more than par the course for them. One of their big problems with the ads they so consistently bust is that they’re always too crammed with subtext and pretext. Embracing spectacle for the sake of spectacle, or unstructured, avant-garde nihilism that openly subverts the corporate expectation that everything important has to have neat logos, catch-phrases and “objectives” is very much what they’re all about.

If I sound dismissive it’s because I am. The fact remains that most people in this world are profoundly apolitical, so I’m always greatly suspicious of any “new” movement that seems to arise overnight, claiming to be a leaderless mob of average citizens who have finally been pushed too far. A quick glance at the majority of Occupy Wall Street’s participants clearly suggests they’re the sort of people who were inclined to hold their anti-fat cat views long before there was any specific news event to justify a rally (which might explain why there wasn’t), and whose success at organizing reflects that substantial networks for communication and participation were already in place. If the press has been somewhat indifferent, I don’t blame them. “Boho leftists: they’re still around” is hardly a compelling narrative.

There have been some Tea Party analogies made, often by lefties who want this movement to be “their version,” but I think the analogy is even more apt than that. Numerous journalistic investigations have now proven quite conclusively that the vast majority of self-proclaimed non-partisan, leaderless, spontaneously-arisen Tea Party members and organizers are simply partisan Republicans who were active in politics long before Obama, or the stimulus, or whatever. To the extent they want to change “politics as usual,” they just want to push the discourse more to the right, as they, and their numerous partisan predecessors, always have. The adoption of new symbols and tactics, and a new veneer of righteous indignation and stagy alienation, are little more than colourful gimmicks to disguise a fairly boring status quo.

Something about the angry left has made them historically less powerful than the angry right (at least since the 1970s), though I guess that could be changing. The greatest success of the Tea Party, after all, was proclaiming its influence loudly and often enough to shift mainstream perceptions in that direction, and then actively working through the American primary system to cobble together a few high-profile candidate case studies as further evidence. That the TP was eventually willing to move beyond the realm of pure spectacle — even if its goals were nothing particularly spectacular — is a lesson worth noting for the Wall Street crowd. But until they do, they’ll merely serve as a reminder that obnoxiously ideological radicalism is not the sole domain of one side.


  1. @ThePsudo

    It's hard for us arm-chair political hobbyists to be skeptical when we hear that vast swaths of the previously apolitical are being persuaded by the great arguments people like us are contributing to the great political debate we so enjoy, but it's not a particularly realistic belief. Changes in partisan ratios on a societal scale take years, sometimes generations, to swing from one wing to the other. We flatter ourselves to imagine that we can change the world so quickly and easily. One activist can wield the same influence as dozens of the politically disinterested, but the politically disinterested outnumber activists by a far greater amount than that. It's worth trying, but to imagine up great revolutions that don't exist can only disillusion a cause in the end.

  2. Chips1787

    I'm currently living in New York, and can say that I'm somewhat disturbed by the media blackout; this blackout seems to be taking the voice away from what the protesters are trying to tell everyone. I feel that the idea of occupying Wall St, would be a wonderful form of protest, if it wasn't portrayed as a bunch of young 20 something middle class kids who are upset, and wanting to relive the "glory days" of civil disobedience in the 60's and 70's. To me, it just seems that there is nothing really constructive going on with this occupation, to the big-shots on Wall St this protest is a joke, and will always be a joke (as is evidence by a youtube link that has been circulated around with Wall St types drinking champange as the protest moved passed them). On the other side I'm also disturbed by the lack of media coverage, because there are rumors (though they could be truths, I wouldn't know since its only here-say) that there have been acts of police brutality during the protests. People who support the protesters have been listening to police scanners, and also watching video feeds of the protest, trying to figure out what is going on. Without the media being present, I feel that there is no accountability for the police, politicians, protesters, etc towards any negative outcomes that may, or already have resulted from this occupation. I'm not saying that I'm an official on what is happening, these are just the sentiments of a young-20 something person who has been effected by the recession and the actions/lack of action that have been made to try and help the economy recover.

  3. Spencer

    Police brutality to these people is the police doing anything at all. Every protest I have personally seen where someone did something illegal and was arrested accompanied cries of "police brutality." I've seen calls of police brutality when the police forcibly arrested a window breaking idiot on Canada Day. Have they read the boy that cries wolf? "I glanced at it. Boy cries wolf, has a few laughs… I forget how it ends."

  4. Chips1787

    The problem though, is that we don't know for sure if there was actual police brutality or not, all we have is a video of an NYPD officer spraying pepper spray at 3 women. I agree, if someone is doing something illegal during a protest then they should be arrested. Do I think that an officer should use forceful means to arrest a person? I think only when that person is not following orders. As a person who has attended and observed protests, I believe that any sort of violence on the part of the police or the protesters instantly negates the purpose and legitimacy of the protest in the first place.

  5. Spencer

    That's the thing though: a lot of people don't recognize the legitimacy of police. They believe they're special, that nothing can happen to them, and when it does they become very upset and blame everyone but themselves. Sucks for this woman if she did get pepper sprayed, but I'm not losing sleep over it because I have faith in most police officers. It's not like the police revel in hurting people, or have a stake in maintaining this perceived oligarchy; they're doing their job.

    I say this, by the way, as someone who has been roughed up wrongly by police. When you're in a heated situation people make mistakes and things aren't clear. The intent isn't malicious and there are public means of complaint if they feel otherwise.

  6. Guest

    "or have a stake in maintaining this perceived oligarchy"
    That word perceived is doing a lot of work there. It's not exactly controversial to say a lot of financial power is held in the hands of a relatively small number of people. Whether you call it oligarchy is a subjective and semantic question. But if the state is at all complicit in upholding the financial system (and indeed even the most right-wing small-government tea-party type will probably argue that the state has a role as enforcer of property rights), then it's pretty accurate to say the police have a stake in maintaining the current state of affairs.

    As to whether they revel in hurting people, let's be honest, some people enjoy a fight, especially fights they can win. Those people, like anyone else, are looking for jobs. It might be private security, it might be police, or it might be criminality. Of course, an effective police force can make the latter option more risky. It's reasonable then to imagine that the police might disproportionately attract people who are predisposed to violence. Protests, especially involving young people, anarchists, groups who are easily characterised as troublemakers, are a prime opportunity to have a go with minimal fear of repercussions. You can literally hospitalise innocent people and still be praised for your 'restraint'. As well as people who enjoy a fight, what proportion of the population are officious gits? If the police has its fair share of those, they will exacerbate the situation and enable the violent ones. Now factor in the apathetic, who won't bother to cause a fuss. The 'good' police officers could well be in a small minority, especially out of those who are assigned to police protests. Given how rare it is for police to be held criminally liable (or even disciplined) for such behaviour, why should there be a presumption that the police are generally fair in dealing with political protests? Wouldn't it be more surprising if the police were generally polite, accommodating, and patient?

    Whether or not someone recognises the legitimacy of the police is largely irrelevant to whether or not they have the right not to be brutalised. I'm sure a lot of people in Syria don't recognise the legitimacy of Assad's forces either, and from what I've heard, Assad's forces don't take too kindly to them. But hey, that's acceptable, they're clearly good-for-nothing hippies, right?

    Perhaps you could argue it's different, the west is all democratic and stuff. Thing is, when police use excessive force, particularly against political protesters, that gets called into question. The democratic controls over the police are very flimsy, we're not talking about a system of small forces which are regularly held accountable, the police in any western nation nowadays will consist of a vast institution a long way removed from the people who are supposed to have granted them their powers.

  7. Charles Anthony

    I think these protests are a great thing. Virtually 99% of the entire western population has absolutely no understanding of monetary inflation and the popular — Krugman comes to mind — economists are dishonest. The public does not understand how Wall Street with the help of the Fed are the cause of the economic recessions.
    The only thing these people see are disparities in wealth and bailouts directly going into the pockets of the parasitic elite. Whatever it takes to stop crony capitalism is a good thing, in my book.

  8. @ThePsudo

    How does inflation actually work, then? Just in case someone from that 99% is reading this.

  9. Guest

    Inflation occurs when all the hot air generated by popular economists, politicians, and internet users is gathered together and pumped into coinage, thus increasing its size but diluting its potency.

    This is very dangerous because over time not only is the money in your wallet worth less, but this 'bubble' is prone to bursting. If you've got as much as $20 in your pocket, that explosion could be very harmful to your health, especially if you do not have health insurance.

    This is why Canada still has it's AAA rating.

  10. Charles Anthony

    Understanding monetary inflation is simple: people who get the newly printed money bid up prices.

  11. Gottfried

    I like the DePape braid!

  12. Matthew Steele

    I always like to see people participating in the political dialog, and I won't fault them for being so typical of what I would have expected anymore than I will the tea party. Part of the problem is the localization. And part of the question is: Can they take this off of Wall Street? Is this protest a localized event, or is it going to influence the Democratic primaries, or the political dialog in any way?

    I don't know what they want, so we'll wait and see. I look forward to the results, whatever they may be. If it fails, we can learn what they did wrong that the tea party did right. If it succeeds, we can see what it was that made both movements succesful. It adds to the discourse, which is something, but what else will happen?

    Can't wait to find out.

  13. @Ryan_in_SEPA

    The Wall Street camp in just strikes me as another incarnation of the same old left-wing protest movement we have had over the last couple generations.

    Most Americans don't like protests and really don't like protests from the left as they tend to offend American cultural norms.

  14. Ricardo Bortolon

    This reminds of the Vancouver riots in that why should anyone care beyond its immediate impact. It's not newsworthy in any way (though police brutality is). Even the media blackout (read: media indifference) isn't newsworthy. Having come from a student journalist, I hated every stupid advocate or marketer that wanted us to review their exciting new avant-garde film or a protest about whatever people just realized. If people don't want to read about it, there's no money in it for a news outlet to report on it.

    And I definitely have no interest in reading about it. Just like I can't understand why anyone could care about the Vancouver riots outside of angry local business owners and citizens.

    One guy with a sign isn't going to do it. This is why Arabs were lighting themselves on fire to get noticed about their political stances. It's 2011, you need to step up your game, protesters.

  15. Guest

    Isn't this a problem, though? If in order to politically engage directly (as opposed to indirectly, e.g. by voting) you need to do something more edgy, you're creating an arms race that makes political engagement inaccessible.

    I totally accept that if you know a journalist is just going to copy-paste the press release, do a bit of background checking and churn out a column or two, then "100 people rally against closure" is probably going to lose out to "Business misses out on award, claims corruption" (so write a better press release). But this is 2011, shouldn't the standard of journalism be better, not worse? What happened to actually going and taking pictures, asking some searching questions, getting the stories and doing some analysis?

    And people are often concerned about negative media coverage. When one day public sector strikes are considered, it's an irresponsible threat to national economic recovery. When people take a day off for the royal wedding all critics are sticks-in-the-mud. When I see national newspapers (not just the business pages) criticising a one day strike for being feeble, I'll take your point.

  16. Anonymouse

    "What happened to actually going and taking pictures, asking some searching questions, getting the stories and doing some analysis?"

    Because people are idiots. You and me, too. Simple as that.

    Why should I waste my time asking probing questions and doing countless hours of research if my words are going to fall on the ears of idiots?

  17. Thomas

    I'm reminded of when the two wars started. There were protests that were going on in the near by city, and it was what everyone in my school was buzzing about. Many wanted to go join in, and a lot had made plans to go join in. Almost universally their reasoning was either "So I can be there"/"Its just so cool". A few thought they could score easy women too.

    It quite soured my entire viewpoint over protests involving anyone under a certain age in that it can't even be graced that the people are there voicing their opinions, but just to say they were there. To me such things are worse than if ten thousand fat old men in five thousand dollar suits protested their caviar was slightly off this morning, and they are really miffed about it. At least they would have a purpose behind their movement.

    I can't say that the people at this current protest are hangers on or not, but when I see the photos coming out of it I'm wondering how many have actual purpose and how many just want to see a girl with a bikini and a sign.

    Looking over the linked pictures, and other articles, all of them seem to be wearing something either designer or blatantly corporate (Sports Jerseys?). Which does not lend credence that this protest has much of a direction or purpose. People who want to get a message out don't just shout about it, they manipulate everything around them to say it.

    Also, some of the stories seem to be all about the police arrests of the protesters. The few I read mostly painting the police as harsh enforcers of anything they want to arrest you for goes. While some of it seems harsh none of it seems violent. Including the video, that seemed universal, of the officer walking up and the women getting maced. Shocking at first, but what might be the motivation behind the macing? You can't really hear what anyone is saying, the video starts with no context, and while mace might SEEM extreme its actually an effective and safe non-violent way to end a situation that is at police disposal. Especially compared to other methods like water cannons, bean bag shells, and tear gas grenades.

    But its easier to say "How shocking! Those innocent women were standing around and got maced by that officer!" instead of "What caused this situation to happen?" If the women were shouting threats at officers or encouraging others to fight then the officer is completely justified in applying mace. If the women were just confused as to what's happening and the officer came up and maced them to shut them up its wrong.

    Last thing that stood out from one article in particular was the article mentioning detractors having said, in short, entitled white kids who know nothing about issues, and then the article claiming they had interviewed people at the protest about what issues the protest was about and getting the sense that everyone was well in formed. To which I would say, its easy to know what to say when everyone around you says it.

  18. Guest

    "all of them seem to be wearing something either designer or blatantly corporate (Sports Jerseys?)"
    Sportswear? How crass! Perhaps you need to issue a guide to potential protesters. JJ's cartoons may be a useful starting point – he rightly appreciates that there is a standardised uniform and hairstyle for both Canadian and American hippies. It is indeed very important for protesters to marks themselves out as non-persons in order that they can be effectively ignored by the public and to make things easier for the police to discern who is asking to be maced or cudgelled and who has a right to be protected from the dangerous protesters.

  19. Thomas

    I'm not sure if this is against or for my pointing out of sportswear or not? Sarcasm translates poorly through text, but considering how it ended i'm going to say you're against what I said.

    I probably should of made that more clear and should of expected some people not to notice the point. They are protesting that wall street is greedy and corporations are bad, but some of the people are quite clearing wearing sports merchandise which is notoriously overpriced. Not just for getting real jerseys and the like, but even a replica jersey will set you back $50-80 depending on who's it is and what team its for.

    I'm not saying they need a uniform to make themselves stand out from everyone else. I'm just saying that if they are going to protest greed it would probably help if more of their clothing didn't look like it cost someone's weekly or even monthly paycheck.

    If you're saying they should be wearing what the public wears though, then I would say they have effectively marked themselves out from the public. I look over the photos and I see a lot of scarfs even though if I check the temperature for New York City in September the highs never go below 65 degrees F for the entire month, in fact staying in the 69-80 degree F area, and the lows barely reach 56 degrees F (most likely at night). Basically the scarfs are a fashion item then. No purpose served but to pay a clothing company cash that the wearers had as expendable.

    There doesn't need to be a old barrel and a potato sack for a uniform when in a protest of this type. But if you're going to protest greed it does not help to show off how you spend your money on non-essential things.

  20. Guest

    A few subtle but important differences between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street.
    1) Aspirations. Rhetoric about how big a difference there is between federal politicians and the TP's ideal society is, really their ideology, insofar as it is coherent, is simply one or two paces to the right of the Republicans. Their main point of agreement is opposition to the healthcare proposal, a proposal which, at least in the details, was not uncontroversial within even the Democrats. OWS appears to be anticapitalist. That's going leftwards from the Democrats beyond Canadian Liberals, beyond social democrats. Their methods of organisation are not those of the more orthodox left, the socialist and communist groups, they're more radical. The cartoon implies anarchism. We're talking about a group that is suggesting something genuinely fundamentally different from the status quo.
    2) There is a difference between people who have been politically aware in their activities and people who have been politically enfranchised. There's a difference between people who have attended or helped organise a petition or protest, maybe been a union member or whatever and people who have held positions of influence in a major political party.
    3) The methods are different; neither is new. The Tea Party is largely acting as an entryist organisation within the Republican Party. It is a different way of doing politics as usual. OWS is a protest movement. Different way of doing it than your usual march from A to B routine, more focused on sustained protest and direct action (or maybe focussed on trying to do direct action?). The Tea Party took some time to be successful. I think OWS will take some time, too.
    4) Leaderlessness… It's a difficult discipline, and there's always a risk of informal and therefore undemocratic hierarchies developing. I have no evidence, but my instinct tells me that a group like the TP, which is now a magnet for aspiring right-wing politicians is not going to fare as well as a movement where playing a 'leadership role' is basically (sadly) inviting interest from the various security agencies.
    5) Focus. The TP is focussed on high politics: how the politicians run the country. I don't know if they do any local stuff except for soundbites, but the OWS are already building links with working-class community organisations in New York. This is a movement that seems to be deliberately copying the recent (very diverse) tent protests in Israel sparked partly by the price of cottage cheese.

  21. @Andy928766

    Slacktivism ho!

  22. Jon Bennett

    The irony is that the rich people on Wall Street are working, while those whining that they have no money are just sitting on the sidewalk whining that people on Wall Street don't earn their money.

    Wait, that's not ironic. It's obvious and typical.

  23. Charles Anthony

    The people on Wall Street are not working. Rather, they are spending newly printed money.

  24. Dan

    I love that Anonymous wears Guy Fawkes' masks, when Guy Fawkes wanted to form a Catholic theocracy in Great Britain.

  25. Jon Bennett

    Don't let facts get in the way of imitating a movie Hipsters loved.

  26. Nick Wood

    I don't think any of the people who take to wearing those masks really care about Guy Fawkes. They usually either see it as the mark of "Anonymous", or as an imitation of the main character of Alan Moore's "V for Vendetta", which is a pretty shrill endorsement of anarchist ideals — which makes sense when you consider its popularity on 4chan.

  27. Jake

    Simple answer. 2010 has more conservative voters come out and vote than in recent previous elections. So yes the Tea Party is more genuine than those lefty protesters.

  28. Mike

    It seems that some groups don't understand that it's not what you say, but how you say it.

  29. @ThePsudo

    What you say matters, too. But clarity matters more than volume for sure.

  30. psarae

    I'm fairly sure you mean "lamestream media."

  31. rebochan

    Honestly, I really wanted this movement to be more than the usual group of nutters showing up. Sadly, it was.

    For a protest like this to matter, they'd need easily at least 10,000 people. Preferably the genuinely unemployed. And they'd need to show up in such force as to stop Wall Street from functioning, not be a minor inconvenience when you cross the street.

    Wall Street has gotten away with absolutely devastating the world economy, but its going to take a lot more to topple that juggernaut than a bunch of hipsters with signs. The main difference between these guys and the tea party is that for some insane reason, the GOP is taking marching orders from the Tea Party.

  32. Les

    OWS is very much the mirror-image of the Tea Party, as the Tea Party was in it's embryonic stages.

    The Tea Party originated with people with moderately liberatrian-right leanings who were disgusted by the treatment of large financial companies during the sub-prime meltdown, seeing the bailouts as not only unsound economic policy since it would effectively reward poor decision-making in parts of the economy where you really can't afford that but also as a betrayal of the American voter and tax-payer since they were pushed through despite a very high degree of citizen-dissaproval.

    And so, the 'Chicago Tea Party' started with disgruntled individuals meeting-up to toss Lipton's into Lake Michigan, and there was much rejoicing… not really, nobody cared, at all! So, the proto-TeaParty cast a wider net, and caught some Republican insiders who offered to 'help', spreading the net wider and tapping into a seething undercurrent of resentment on the Right.

    Now the OWS originates with a bunch of moderately progressive-left leaning individuals disgruntled over large financial companies etc.. etc… Only time will tell if it will continue it's evolution as the Tea Party did.

  33. Rebochan

    Well, if they can get the astroturf the Tea Party got, maybe. 24-hour coverage from a news network clamoring for ratings would also help.

  34. PTBO

    It is no secret that the media ignores left wing protest (unless there is 'trouble') and trumps up an right wing protest they can lay their hands on.

    I remember back in 2008, I was part of the 5000-6000 students from half a dozen universities and colleges that marched on Queen's Park in Toronto to protest unsustainable tutition increases. This was on a day where students protests across Ontario. We tried everything- took a very circular route from U of T to Queen's Park and laid down in the street during rush hour. We blocked up Toronto traffic really good for hours.

    Result: No major newspaper (NP, GM, TS) sent anybody down- the best we got was a page 14 story in the Globe and Mail which was a 5 paragraph Canadian Press Wire describing a much smaller Ottawa protest. This was the same week the the Mope and Wail had FOUR days straight of 100 anti-China Tibetan protesting against the 2008 Olympics on their FRONT page in full colour.

    It's tough to compete sometimes… But you can never give up- Solidarity is what matters in the end.

  35. Ricardo Bortolon

    Look who else is making funnies comparing Occupy Wall Street with the Tea Party – Jon Stewart! LAWSUIT LAWSUIT LAWSUIT

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