The American Way of Protest

The American Way of Protest
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When you look at the incredible, ghastly footage of the riotous young people in Ukraine and Venezuela, one obvious thought is “could it ever happen here?”

Well, in 2011 it did, kinda-sorta. That was the year of “Occupy,” which, like it or loathe it, was undeniably the most coherent — and critically — physically confrontational radical dissident movement to arise in the United States (and to a lesser extent, some of her western allies) since the ’60s. The Occupiers, who began squatting in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park before inspiring copycats in Chicago, LA, Portland, and virtually every other US city of note, were unapologetic in their desire to be a different kind of protest, one that was not only unabashedly radical, but aggressively disobedient to boot.

Ideologically, their ranks were disproportionately comprised of far-left critics of capitalism; not necessarily Marxists per se, but definitely those favoring  an alternative economic system that emphasized egalitarianism and wealth redistribution far above profit and commerce. They introduced the language of the “1% versus the 99%” to our vocabulary, and churned out a wide array of manifestos demanding things like “maximum income” caps for the rich, guaranteed living wages for the poor, and forgiveness for the “illegitimate,” banker-created debts of both people and nations alike.

The Occupiers were a big deal. The President weighed in, liberal politicians like Elizabeth Warren tried to piggyback on it, and for two straight months, the press talked about little else.

And then they went away.

Once November came along, cops across America simply cleared Occupy camps out of the various parks and public squares they were inhabiting, and though there were scattered incidents of violent clashes — most famously the so-called “Sargent Pepper” incident at the University of California Davis — they mostly went peacefully.

Oh sure, they claimed they’d be back soon, and there were a few false-start half-revivals, including the 2012 formation of an online “International Occupy Assembly,” and the drafting of a Global Occupy Manifesto, but by and large, the movement died when 2011 ended. American capitalism, needless to say, survived.

Contrast all this to the current protest movement in Ukraine, which has lasted only slightly longer, but achieved infinitely more.

In December of last year, Ukrainian citizens angered at the pro-Russian overtures of their pro-Russian government began occupying the main plaza of the country’s capital, Independence Square, and soon stormed and occupied Kiev city hall, too. The cops tried to clear them out, and even shot several dozen, but they remained, with crowds growing larger every day. In January the government offered the protestors legal amnesty if they would disperse; the protestors said no, and proceeded to seize control of more and more government property, culminating in the taking of the president’s decadent palace. The President himself has now fled, and his once supportive parliament has declared him an enemy of the state and scheduled emergency elections. All this in three months.

Or how about the protest movement in Venezuela?

Ever since old man Chavez died last March, Venezuelans have gotten a lot more comfortable expressing open distain for their crooked and oppressive government. Students from the University of the Andes took to the streets at the beginning of this month, originally to express outrage over a campus rape case, but quickly becoming, in the words of the fine Venezuelan blogger Rodrigo Linares, “as much about civil rights and the Right to Protest itself — rejecting the government’s criminalization of all dissent — as about the original goal.”

Sympathetic protestors all across the Caracas capital region are now building Les Miserables-style barricades of furniture and junk to ward off agents of law enforcement dispatched by President Maduro, tossing rocks and Molotov cocktails in response to what many observers have dubbed the most heavy-handed police (and army) attempts to pacify the populace since the establishment of the self-proclaimed “revolutionary” Chavez regime in 1999. The New York Times estimates the death toll is “probably at least a dozen” so far, and things show no signs of cooling down.

Obviously, the situations in Venezuela and Ukraine are extraordinarily complex in many ways, but in others, not so much. At the core of both protests, after all, is a simple perception of injustice, manifest by a government whose ruling ideology is fundamentally illegitimate and correlated to mass suffering. In both nations, protestors perceive this oppressive status quo to be severe enough to justify just about any tactics to correct it, up to and including violence.

Occupy, needless to say, was never willing to go that far. Though they resembled some of these other protests in motive, rhetoric, and style, they never did in effort, energy, or courage, and their inability to achieve even marginally comparable success in a comparable period of time was the predictable outcome. Inequality in America, and the oppressive dominance of the increasingly financialized US economy was simply not a cause that could sustain even a radical squatters’ movement for more than two months, let alone provoke the overthrow of anything. Even much of what they occupied was safe, public, and strategically useless.

It’s tempting, from a conservative perspective, to get all puffy and smug about this, and enjoy a hearty drink of schadenfreude at the expense of the far-left’s most ignoble failure of recent decades. But really, the satisfaction deserves to more broadly shared.

For all the problems Occupy rose up to oppose — and to be sure, many of them were problems — they still ultimately existed in a country enjoying the UN’s third-best Human Development Index rank, one of the freest, least corrupt political systems on earth, and second-highest rate of GDP per capita of any major western nation. Ukrainians, by contrast, live in a country about three times more corrupt and seven times poorer; Venezuelans in a nation that’s five times as oppressive and 10 times as dangerous.

That protest movements in the States never go anywhere serious, in short, is as much a symptom of the fact that Americans really don’t have that much to protest, globally speaking, as any character flaws among those who try.

That’s a simple truth. But one that’s worth remembering just the same.




^ 22 Comments...

  1. ShadowFox

    Oh Man J.J. I hope you didn't eat breakfast cause you're about to get an extra helping of Vitriol O's.

  2. Rob Bos

    I hope it doesn't have to come to violence here. Back in 2012 it was a pretty small number of people, and they were behaving for the most part nonviolently, but if discontent gets high enough and the government loses enough moral high ground, it could get messy pretty fast, even here.

  3. Monte

    I feel like the problem with the occupy movement was the lack of leadership and a clear goal. There was no one leading the fight, rallying the people to keep up the pressure and no one really voicing their problem. And the reason for that is because they didn't really know what the problem was exactly. Sure any protestor could tell you that they were unhappy with the way things were, and thought something needed to be changed, but they didn't know what exactly. As JJ mentions, some protestors did say what they thought would make things better, but there wasn't any solutions they could all agree on; They didn't have a unifying solution that they could all agree on a rally behind. The lack of good leadership is also a problem; a charismatic leader can keep people coming, but without one the movement might loose steam since not everyone will listen.

    In other large protests, the solutions were more obvious; either specific immediate reforms by the government or, failing that, just throw out the government leadership. The protests were against the government itself, so if the government didn't make the changes they wanted, they could just try again with new leadership in the government. And These protestors had no trouble finding leadership since the leading party of any government always have plenty of opposition political figures willing to ride the storm of public discontent. With Occupy however, their enemy was not really the government, but wall street. Getting rid of Obama wouldn't have really done anything. The rich are not elected officials and thus there isn't really a way to get rid of them like you would a governing body. The only way to solve the issues the protestors had was though somekind of drastic economic reforms or laws, but not even the protestors themselves could ever nail down what those reforms would be. Heck some of the radical changes that might give them what they wanted might have been too radical even for them. Without a clear goal and leadership, it would be hard to get the people back together after they lost their steam.

  4. Hentgen

    While lack of a clear goal probably doesn't help a protest movement – the anti-Putin protests in Russia also fizzled out as no leader or clear list of demands crystallized after a few weeks – the motives and desires of the Ukrainian protests were just as opaque at first as Occupy! in the west or the anti-Putin movement in Russia.

    The key difference, I think, was the sheer magnitude of the dissent. Anti-Putin protesters were largely upper-middle-class Muscovites who hold more classic liberal values. However, in the Russian heart and hinterlands, the people there generally support the president in spite of everything. The Occupy! movement was made up of a small segment of the western populations. While many of us may have sympathized with some of their points, we also wanted to go about our day as normal. Things in Ukraine have been pretty bad for most people for a long time, and, other than the bureaucratic class in Venezuela, people are suffering there, too.

  5. Guest

    I always viewed the Occupy Movement as a wasted opportunity. Through their actions, they managed to build a huge, nationwide network of activists who could have lobbied very effectively for measures that would have relieved income inequality in America. The original purpose of occupying the parks was to draw attention to this issue, and it worked. Everyone across the country was talking about the Occupy Movement and income inequality in America.

    But in their fight to stop themselves from being evicted from their parks, it seems like the protestors lost sense of the big picture. As soon as they were evicted from the parks, the protestors acted like like it was the end of the world, and made no effort to lobby lawmakers after that. Basically, they got too attached to the "occupy" part of their movement and forgot that it was originally just meant to draw attention to their cause.

  6. Cato

    Occupy didn't succeed because it was a shallow protest, one whose members showed no understanding of economics and didn't come up with any issues that resonated deeply with mainstream America. Their knee-jerk rejection of Capitalism was particularly badly informed, since the problem facing us right now isn't Capitalism, but the perversion of Capitalism into an incestuous tangle of public and private alliances exchange "campaign contributions" for anti-competitive government activity that picks winners and losers. Likewise, the Keynesian bailouts of the financials are hardly Capitalist in any real sense.

    Protest these things, advocate fixing the system? People will rally to the banner. Talk about replacing it with some other economic system, and the first thing people think about is Communism. Look how THAT turned out.

  7. Dryhad

    It's been said before and I'll probably get downvoted for saying it again, but by the same token that the things you mention "aren't Capitalism" the thing that "turned out" badly wasn't Communism. It too was perverted and entangled with compromises and corruptions. I do recognise that it's not good enough for communists to simply say "Well Russia was never really communist, so that's not a problem for us" but by the same token you can't claim that nothing less than 100% pure laissez-faire anarchy can be described as capitalist. Nor do I think drawing that distinction would have benefited Occupy in the slightest, it would at best have had no effect and at worst introduced another faction in their already anarchic ranks rallying for anarcho-capitalism.

  8. Virgil

    I think a legitimate problem was that Communism ended up being tried through dictatorships. If elected, we refer to "Democratic Socialism". Dictatorships inevitably, human nature being what it is, end up being perverted by the clique at the top.

    Additionally, Communism's anti-religious principals needlessly alienated a good number of people who would otherwise have been more supportive. Marx viewed religion as an attempt by the ruling classes to pacify the masses but this was overly cynical. To take but one example, a religiously inspired movement of workers..Solidarity, helped dislodge Communism ultimately, and the man who inspired Solidarity…Pope John Paul II, was no friend to unfettered markets.

  9. Dryhad

    What it basically comes down to is Marx was wrong about how communism would come about. He imagined something not unlike Occupy: an uprising against the wealthiest segment of the wealthiest nations. That didn't really happen, and when it did it fizzled out. Instead the "communist" nations grew out of the then developing world in Russia and China, and adopted the Leninist view that they had to first set the stage for communism (progression between different stages of society was very important to Marx). They used this as an excuse for dictatorship, leading to all the problems you mention.

    Your point about religion is an interesting one in that it kind of echoes back to Cato's implication that people would have supported all of Occupy's ideals if only they hadn't held those ideals because they're communist ideals and communism is obviously bad. It's somewhat telling when you actually agree with what is being said but oppose it because of guilt by association. I don't think this is why Occupy failed, because it didn't broadly self-identify as communist. If there was ever going to be a proper proletarian revolution in a developed capitalist nation it was Occupy, and that just didn't happen.

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Simple answer? Democracy works in America. When it didn't, protest was a needed, like with Civil Rights.

  11. Colin Minich

    Well J.J., I don't even think protests should be that important a subject matter in Ukraine because… http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/01/us-ukra

    Shit just got real, to coin the meme/line from Bad Boys.

    But I do laugh at the revival attempts of Occupy. Occupy in an of itself bothered me, a mess of students and other ideologues who despite having some legit beefs with the powers that be were so uncooperative and so reliant on a decentralized leadership that they ruined themselves and in the end big business laughed in victory. I mean, video-taping harassing a man and his three-year-old daughter trying to get home or repeatedly delaying NYC subways (where blue collar workers that you're "defending" rely on their daily commute) were recipes for disaster.

    Now I see Venezuela and as a massive pro-Capriles guy see some hope here despite the colectivos. I see legitimate protests and honestly…no Western liberal has any real right to advise them on how to protest because frankly they're not experiencing what those in Caracas are who fight the failure of Chavismo or in Ukraine who rightfully protested the Putin power grab.

  12. Ann Apolis

    Give me a second here: is the message of this commentary seriously "maybe if the Occupy people wanted to bring about change they shoulda shot some dudes"? Because I can't read it any other way.

    "In both nations, protestors perceive this oppressive status quo to be severe enough to justify just about any tactics to correct it, up to and including violence. Occupy, needless to say, was never willing to go that far."

    Honestly JJ, I didn't have you pegged as a dangerous left-wing pro-violence agitator.

  13. Brandon

    What I took from this piece, was more that Occupy never really had anything on the line like the protests in Venezuela and Ukraine. Not being able to afford the latest IPhone isn't quite as quick to push someone to risking life and limb in protests.

    Unless I'm missing something, or things are dramatically different outside Michigan, it is essentially impossible to starve/sleep without a roof over your head, unless you choose to do so. You could be jobless, and have not had income for years, you can still go down to a shelter, and get free meals. It certainly isn't the life /I/ would want, but your basic survival needs are provided by the government in the US.

  14. Virgil

    I can! I am on the right, but this is unfair to JJ. The better reading would be that the stakes were not high enough to justify violence.

    Right or left…at a certain point violence becomes a reasonable solution. To take but one obvious example, Hitler at the end was stopped by the guns of the Allies. To take another, I live (in the United States) in a country where one of the most hallowed documents is an appeal to arms and an explanation of the course of action. The question is when oppression becomes so bad that violence does become reasonable. In Ukraine many are convinced that it has become a reasonable option. For the occupy protesters, such a reaction would appeal to the great majority as ranging from laughable to utter madness.

  15. JJ McCullough

    I'm not condoning violence at all. It would have been absurd and psychotic for the Occupy people to have used violence. But that's my point: the fact that violence wasn't used, and in fact seems so insane to even contemplate using, just highlights how much lower the stakes were in America of 2011 compared to Ukraine/Venezuela of 2014.

  16. Occupy Cleveland

    You obviously have no experience with movement work let alone ANY real world experience with Occupy Wall Street. This has got to be the lamest piece of concern trolling from an ignorant neoliberal about how spoiled protesters in North America are. Using a twisted comparison to events in Ukraine and Venezuela (violent episodes none-the-less) to prove some worthless point about liberals or perceived "ideologues" being pussies because conditions make people pussies in N.A. Incredible stupidity.
    Then turning and complaining that he's all not about violence. A pacifist he is and would never condone violence. You are absurd and psychotic. Or at least very immature.
    As far as the Ukraine achieving "infinitely more", well this is just the beginning of their revolution and it doesn't look promising with the ultra-right neo-nazis about to take the reigns in a putsch/purge of anything "liberal". Careful what you wish for when you leave the violence up to skin-heads and futballers. They have a nasty way of making you regret glorious victory at the ramparts of the Father Land.
    Otherwise I recommend you re-read Les Mis or at least attend your high school rendition of the hit musical to get your barricades fix of what a 16 yr old thinks is revolution.
    "We all would love to change your mind" – Beatles

  17. Nick Wood

    Your argument is incoherent.

    His point is that the Occupy protests have resulted in far less political change over a longer period of time than protests started for fairly similar reasons in other countries, such as Venezuela and Ukraine. Of course, "infinitely more" is a somewhat clumsy way to put this, I don't think you've at all challenged his central thesis that there's simply less substance to protesting in the US wherein the demands of those protesters — which may be entirely valid — look somewhat weak in comparison to the demands of protestors in the aforementioned countries wherein their demands have more to do with the fact that Venezuela remains the most violent country in the world per-capita, and where political dissidents are subjected to far more draconic repression; or in Ukraine, wherein political action has provoked a full-scale political upheaval that's changing the geopolitical landscape of Europe as I type these paragraphs.

    It would be ignorant to write off the OWS protests. They clearly affected politics in the US, left-wing or otherwise. What you seem to be intimating, however, is that JJ. is labeling OWS protesters "pussies" (a term which he doesn't seem to actually use), or that jackbooted nazis in full regalia are going to take control in Ukraine. I'm really not sure — it's pretty rambling.

    I recommend you read the "Elements of Style", since our reading list is on the table.

    "I fought men, and I hit women" ~John Lennon~

  18. Longtime lurker

    Riiiiighht..

    Ignorant, neoliberal… these are not terms that apply to JJ.

    I'm not crazy about his hair or where he puts his wang, but calling him ignorant pretty much paints you as being ignorant yourself OC.

  19. Brandon

    I'm not even sure it's fair to compare real protest movements to the Occupy Wallstreet crowd. Their only semi-coherent demands were always some form of "give me something for nothing, because you have more than I do". Jealousy in solid form, with a dash of uselessness.

  20. guest

    Yeah – gotta say although I am usually with you JJ on this one not so much.
    Just because things are relatively good in the USA doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate things to improve or protest about.
    I think Occupy's biggest problem was the lack of a single, united change goal. The Occupy movement was a pretty broad coalition with only very loose goals.
    In addition, they simply weren't able to communicate a simple message that people could coalesce behind – and couldn't manufacture enough outrage outside the fringes.

  21. Jake_Ackers

    I have a different interpretation of this comic. American protests have become a fad. As seen by the pins on the American character. Venezuelan and Ukrainians it has become a needed way of life. Not that American protestors must become violent. But that they try for a bit and then give up and just returning to the status quo. In other words, a fad.

    But like I said. "Simple answer? Democracy works in America. When it didn't, protest was a needed, like with Civil Rights." The OWS movement maybe needed but as a protest? Not so much so. Tea Party, for better or for worst, took the democratic route. Like them or hate them, their success is undeniable. Now name me one OWS politician that was elected as a result of the movement. If you have to google them it doesn't count.

  22. Colin Minich

    The Tea Party succeeded more because they actually attracted money and knew how to play politics. Fools would believe there was zero astroturfing but they knew how to get connected. The voice of Occupy however was more like "We don't want your system, maaaaaaaaaaaaan." and through that shunned ANY political endorsement no matter how profitable and how advantageous. It's why idealism fails in the face of practical realism and a government that was built off compromise, not blind ideology one way or the other.

    And frankly? I'm getting tired of the insistence of democracy everywhere. Maybe, just maybe, it's not a universal cure-all especially with cultures, like a good chunk of Russia's, that want nothing to do with it.