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Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupying Wall Street: A Self-Regulated Protest?

The right to protest as a manifestation of freedom of speech is held societally as sacred the United States, but the question of how far protest goes before it becomes simply living in a park is one of those gray areas that tend to be decided by the judiciary far from the tarps and sleeping bags. The protesters’ premise that living in a public space eventuates in the achievement of their goals is tenuous where the goals are broad. Undergoing a hunger strike to get a certain anti-corruption bill voted on by India’s parliament is far different than camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York City until corporate capitalism is ended in the U.S. In short, the tactics used should be oriented to the sort of objective being sought. Moreover, the tactics and indeed the objectives themselves require a protest group to self-police such that it does not wander too far off course or spread itself too thin. Protest movements may be too prone to die a slow death from self-inflicted wounds without even the slightest recognition of the cause of death. The Occupy Wall Street protest movement had the capacity to self-regulate, but fell well short of that which was necessary for the group to achieve its anti-corporate goals.

To be sure, the movement evinced some capacity to regulate itself. Faced with the prospect of an imminent clean-up of Zuccotti Park—perhaps a salubrious subterfuge actually geared to permanently dislodging the park’s new residents—some of the protesters scurried around “with brooms and trash bags, moving mountains of sleeping bags, backpacks and jackets out of the way,” according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, others gardened. These tasks doubtlessly tapped into the young protesters’ ideal of working toward something larger than themselves, which they tend to label as “community.”  The impetus on the upkeep was geared to forestalling the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, from clearing the park a third at a time for a “once-over” by a clean-up crew, after which new rules proscribing camping, tents, tarps and sleeping bags would be enforced. But was it even in the group’s interest to allow camping to become a major issue? Secondly, could the energy of self-regulation have been put to better uses than clean up, given the group’s anti-corporate goals?

Taking the first question first, it should be obvious that occupying a park is not occupying Wall Street. If the protesters were serious on their occupation, they would have sat own in streets in New York’s financial district and blockaded the bank entrances with sit-downs—perhaps even occupying bank lobbies akin to the anti-war protest at Columbia University in 1968. This “actual occupation” strategy would have been more likely to involve the police, but the occupation would have been real—at least for a time. This strategy is distinct from protest marches, which as a strategy could have been an alternative or addition to that of actual occupation of the streets and banks. Allowing the issue to be whether camping takes place in a park can thus be seen as a diversion that is not in the protester’s own interest. Indeed, getting sick by living in a crowded park night after night would also enervate the protest (besides justify the public authorities in clearing the park for public health reasons).

Regarding the second question, the self-regulation evinced by the protesters cleaning up on their own volition can be read as supporting the argument that the protest movement could have policed itself regarding delimiting its topic and presenting a positive image for public relations purposes. Protesters could have volunteered, for example, to make the rounds to eliminate any off-topic signs, such as those for the environment and against the war in Afghanistan. Allowing the protest to be a virtual grab-bag of leftist causes deprived the movement of broader support and gave the opposition ammunition with which to relegate the movement. Even in shifting from an anti-big-corporation message to redistribution undercuts the group’s original anti-corporate (but not necessarily redistributive) goals.

Butting up against the movement’s own efforts to regulate itself was the ideology or illusion that the movement had no leaders. “Every action you see here is autonomous,” one protester said as he was filling plastic bags with trash. “Autonomous enough for people not to be doing it,” another protester added, as reported by The New York Times. That protester went on to describe his “autonomous plan” as if that label itself, and his belief in it, rather than a single-minded aim of ridding American society of large corporations were the main point of him being there.

In other words, the protesters themselves suffered from a lack of priorities and this hurt the attainment of their original anti-corporate goals. Even though the voluntary clean-up effort demonstrates that the movement was capable of self-regulation to delimit and protect the priority of its original, anti-corporate goals, the refusal to delimit the topics (based on the illusion that there were no leaders) and keep the distracting ideologies at bay undercut the group’s self-regulatory potential and ultimately the group’s realization of its anti-corporate goals. Indeed, their lip-service to the contrary, many of the protesters may not have been sufficiently interested in those goals in the first place.

In a letter to the local police commissioner, the chief executive of the property company that owns Zuccotti Park reported that there had been neighborhood complaints of “lewdness, groping, drinking and drug use.” Without self-policing such behavior, the movement risked undercutting its own legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public. Without legitimacy, the movement would face an uphill battle even to be heard. Furthermore, the behavior could be viewed as having an opportunity cost—that of the foregone focus on how to achieve the anti-corporate aims of the movement. Actions speak louder than words; from my vantage-point, it seems that the protesters could have been more devoted to the cause that presumably brought them to Zuccotti Park.

So while it might be fun for young people to relish their “autonomous plans,” get high and camp out with other like-minded people in the zest of life, the refusal of the group to self-regulate itself may have been the seed of the group’s eventual dissolution without the movement having attained its goals—whatever those happened to be. It is an interesting question whether an aggregate of "autonomous plans" can regulate a movement without even a leader as a spokesperson. But why risk "the cause" to find out?

Every group must necessarily have leaders. Whether centralized or decentralized, leadership is part of any organization. Whether accountable or stealth, leadership is there, and whether as spokespersons or committees, leadership is also there. To eschew mechanisms like majority rule and group decision-making so that every person can feel fully autonomous is not only antithetical to there even being a group, it is also at odds with the realization of the movement’s goals, which presumably are necessary means to the greater autonomy being sought outside of a city park.

In short, the protesters undercut themselves from the get-go by wanting too much both ways. They refused to self-regulate their ideology. They would hate reading this, but I suspect that a crucial error of the movement early-on was to give young people too great a role in, yes, running it. Even forestalling necessary decision-making at the group level constitutes a default-decision. In a way, to eschew any leadership at all evinces a puerile or jejune mentality of stubbornness at the expense of one's goal of reducing the impediments to greater economic liberty. This mentality may also have manifested in the failure of the young in the movement to defer to more seasoned leaders. We can do it better ourselves this time and we want it both ways. We don't want ANY limitations. To this mentality, I echo Burl Ives as the snowman narrator of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, where he shakes his white head of snow, smiles, and says almost fatalistically, Ah, youth.

In Homer's story of the Trojan War, Achilles' youthful exuberance defers quite uncomfortably to the experience of King Agamemnon; a war led solely by youthful passion would be a mere series of battles. In Lawrence of Arabia, Alec Guinness as King Faisal tells Peter O'Toole as Lawrence to leave the room so the British and Arab leaders can negotiate on Damascus. Some things must be left to old men, the king teaches the youthful warrior with a credible tone of fatalism at the expense of volition. Successful youth are mature and humble enough to know they can't do it all themselves. Successful leaders can then tap into youthful passion and direct it strategically.

Had the Occupy Wall Street movement self-regulated itself beyond cleaning up the park, the group could have enforced and sustained sufficient focus (and thus energy) on the original anti-corporation goals, wherein corporations no longer own Congress and the largest banks and corporations are broken up because of their systemic risk to the financial system, the economy, and representative democracy. The opportunity cost in broadening the movement is sad, particularly as theTea Party could have readily agreed to protest against big business and the banks. That leftist causes, even that of redistribution, were allowed to join the movement out of sheer ideological convenience and an immature refusal to admit the necessity of leadership demonstrates that the self-regulation evinced in the clean-up of the city park did not go nearly far enough for the movement's own good, and that of the republic for which we stand united for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Source:

Anemona Hartocollis, “Tidying UP, Pre-emptively, But Showdown May Loom,” The New York Times, October 14, 2011.