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.
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.