A Sleeping Giant Stirs: Why Occupy Wall Street Should Not Be Ignored2
By Ariel Nishli
Picture this: Hundreds of young and frustrated left-wing students fill a New York City square to protest recent government legislation. Momentum picks up three states over, where a well-orchestrated assembly of 2,500 becomes a model to be repeated dozens of times across the country. The movement grows in size and acidity as 20,000 people chanting grievances march down a busy Manhattan avenue, resulting in seven arrests. A more peaceful and even larger gathering in San Francisco launches a season of rebellion on the east coast spanning several months.
This should sound familiar. We’ve all been tuned in to the plethora of news aggregators and social media outlets featuring the unrest. Yet these events are more likely to be found in a history textbook than in recent news. They are a nod to the Vietnam War protests, a decade-long global movement that permanently changed American foreign policy, sparked an exodus of 30,000 U.S. citizens, left swaths of students dead and injured at the hands of state authorities, and led President Lyndon Johnson to shock the nation with his announcement not to seek reelection. The list of major ramifications goes on.
There is a misguided idea that Occupy Wall Street is an ambiguous flash in the pan heralded mostly by out-of-work idealists. This perception grossly underestimates the scope of the movement. Today’s protesters are proving themselves to be apt students of rebellion, utilizing high-tech tools from the Arab Spring’s playbook, while steadily gaining mainstream support. They’re not just angry. They’re organized.
The Occupy Wall Street movement may have started with a bunch of ragtag malcontents shaking their fists at the suits walking by, but it’s rapidly evolving and already expanding around the globe. The New York City General Assembly (Occupy Wall Street’s official NY title) ratified their Declaration of the Occupation on September 29th, 2011. The document clearly outlines their grievances, albeit a tremendously broad array of them, that they wish to see addressed. It brings to mind another important like-minded document that was long on complaints and short on solutions.
Many protestors are putting democracy itself into process not merely by picketing, but by holding daily breakaway meetings to figure out what they want. The minutes are then posted online for the public. Granted, a drum circle proposal may take up a large chunk of the meeting, but every attendee has a voice. As one of the originating occupiers put it, “It’s messy, and it’s complicated, and it’s slow sometimes; but you have to be willing to take that on. It’s in the nuances of things and in the deep hashing out of things where everyone feels represented and heard, which is the only way that we can actually change a system.” This behavior is more akin to a session of the US House of Representatives than a raucous anti-establishment rally.
You’ll be hard pressed to find someone in charge at an Occupy protest. The movement is embracing consensus, a form of direct democracy in which people collectively make decisions for themselves. As one protester explained, “People ask all the time, like who are the leaders? Well, none of us are leaders, and we’re all leaders exactly the same.” Matthis Chiroux, an active Occupier and a former army sergeant and Afghanistan war veteran who refusied deployment to Iraq because he found it illegal and immoral, maintains that “leaders are targets and certain interests in this country know little ethical restraint when striking at them to strike at the movements and ideas behind them.”
The consensus strategy has its limits though, namely when it comes to communicating directly with elected officials. Occupy Sacramento, for instance, has appointed several individuals to sue the city in Federal court over a curfew law.
The framers of our constitution believed a representative government was the most effective way to manage a nation the size of our budding United States. In fact, they adamantly opposed direct democracy. In his critical Federalist No. 10, the most influential argument for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison warned against the tyranny of majority “factions” – akin to today’s powerful advocacy groups and lobbyists – drowning out minority interests in a disproportionate forum. This concept is represented in the science fiction series Tyranny, which features a dystopian future where omnipotent corporations have destroyed civilian life. Madison argued that popular sentiments could be kept in check by electing a commensurate number of representatives for minority opinion. He primarily divided factions by those who owned property and those who did not.
Tyranny – The Beginning of the End
Tyranny is at the heart of the Occupiers’ frustrations. As opposed to our colonial antecedents, they believe the perpetrators in today’s ultra-capitalist America are the minority (approximately 1%) – the oft-lambasted one percent who own a majority of the country’s wealth. Documentary series The Zeroes, for example, gives an up close and personal account of the lifestyle enjoyed by these one-percenters on Wall Street, as witnessed by the founders of Trader magazine, the now defunct “GQ for stockbrokers.”
The Zeroes – Everyone Wants to be P-Diddy
To make matters worse, lawmakers are accused of aligning with the powerful few, whom they were elected to protect their constituents against. A staggering list of ex-Goldman Sachs employees appointed to high levels of U.S. government was widely circulated during Timothy Geitner’s handling of the 2008 recession. The staggering inequality of wealth in this country, and the political system that has perpetuated it, is at the center of the Occupy movement.
If the fuel for this upheaval is a looming double-dip recession, its engine is technology. Since January 2011, the western world has been applauding the “Arab Spring,” revolutions taking place in the Middle East that have toppled oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and most recently Lybia. (Syria seems to be next in line.) Social media was a critical factor in the success of these revolutions, allowing protestors to organize en masse in countries where mass media was controlled entirely by the state.
Thankfully, Occupiers stateside needn’t worry about circumventing freedom of speech constraints. Still technology is just as important for western protestors, playing a pivitol role in organizing the movement and galvanizing supporters.
- A tumblr blog entitled “We are the 99!” – now Occupy’s maxim – hosts compelling photographs of Americans sharing their dire financial situations.
- Manhattan’s Occupy Wall Street team set up a 24-hour media tent, before even arranging for food and medical resources.
- Events are broadcast via Livestream from camera-phones and laptops in real time, acting as watchdogs against potentially biased mainstream media outlets, the police, and even themselves if they’re out of line.
- The NYC General Assembly’s website runs a “Groups” page, a hive of activity with sections such as Political and Electoral Reform (266 members), Accountability and Transparency (103 members), Facilitation (194 members), and Vision and Goals (118 members).
If you’re wondering whether your city has an Occupy movement, just Google it. More than likely there’s a Facebook page and Twitter feed already set up.
The impact of information technology and social networking on politics is not a new idea. Remember Ross Perot, the incredibly rich guy who ran for President in 1992 and 1996 as an Independent? He’s in the one percent and strongly advocated Electronic Direct Democracy (aka Open Source Governance), an internet-based governance system wherein citizens vote on legislation or defer to an elected official. With the rise of the Internet as our main vehicle of communication, it’s now easy to organize and publicize information, whether that’s votes or public opinion. This is the age of interaction, where behemoths like Netflix and Bank of America change course after an immediate backlash by customers on the web.
Unites States history is replete with protests and in large part is shaped by them.
- The long-gestating women’s suffrage movement began at an 1848 Seneca Falls convention with the Declaration of Sentiments declaring women’s right to vote.
- The 19th Amendment that made it law wasn’t ratified until 41 years later.
- The progressive era of the early 1900’s continued with the labor movement, leading to the formation of unions, stricter safety regulations, and minimum wage.
- The early sixties’ civil rights movement occupied Washington D.C., channeled by speakers, rock n’ roll bands, marches on Capital Hill, and unfortunately violence. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into legislation, giving minorities equal rights as American citizens.
- More recently, the gay rights movement made history after a 30-year conflict, when New York State voted in favor of same-sex marriage. At the time of this publication, federal law does not recognize same-sex marriage.
The social and political achievements gained as a result of these protest movements are monumental, and they all share a common thread of specific, definable goals. Occupy Wall Street still seems to be figuring theirs out. Until they do, Washington remains in a holding pattern on exactly how to respond. The movement springing up on the heels of an election year makes it all the more delicate. Presidential hopeful Herman Caine’s response was: “Don’t be jealous. Don’t be envious. I don’t have much patience for someone who does not want to achieve their American dream the old-fashioned way.” Mr. Cain may eventually find his foot in his mouth.
In its current form, it’s unlikely the Occupy movement will send shockwaves through the halls of Washington D.C. However, the slow-going consensus process could allow their sentiments to reverberate in the long run. The Tea Party began just as ambiguous and emotionally charged – and look at it now. In its wake, a more conservative GOP now commands the 2012 Republican Presidential candidates. Columnist Matt Pressberg draws an interesting parallel between Occupiers’ broad demands and the platform of Teddy Roosevelt’s burgeoning 1912 Progressive (or “Bull Moose” Party), which became the third major political party of the era.
Today’s Occupy movement may merely be in the nascent stages of a full-scale political shift. Lawmakers would be wise to remember movements such as the opposition to the Vietnam War: when ignored, dissenters get louder and louder. Eventually, there’s a breaking point.
The Zeroes – Let It All Hang Out
Tyranny – The Powers That Be
Ariel Nishli has a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry after graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007. He started in the motion picture literary department at ICM before moving on to feature film development at Parkes/MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and freelance writing.