My relevant knowledge with respect to Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the history of social movements and civil disobedience in the United States, as well as what I have learned from participation in extra-legal resistance — chiefly in the context of non-violent, “direct action” opposition to the torture policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. I build my comments out of this background, initially offering a string of propositions. These theses were first developed in late October, 2011, when OWS had the aura of “the new,” and the question — subsequent to the coercive clearing of Zuccotti Park and near all “occupy” encampments nationwide — of “What’s next?” did not hover so urgently over it. They remain, however, relevant to OWS’s current moment and possible future.
My first claim is the need to appreciate the provocation OWS represents — how much its power has been rooted in transgression and a newly defiant attitude. The second is to understand that the defiance is both of law and of conventional understandings of public order, but also of assumptions about how protestors assemble, articulate, and act. Consequently, I argue that to ideally support this movement, one must not merely express affinity with OWS’s well-documented grievances, which large majorities have done in opinion surveys, but appreciate and even celebrate the capacities of this new energy to disrupt the normal functioning of political processes and open up possibilities for what OWS adherents envision as true change. Finally, my comments suggest the inadequacy of an attitude that affirms the right of OWS to protest so long as such protest is perfectly lawful and orderly. Such a view, adopted (de facto) even by “liberal” mayors in major cities who profess sympathy with the movement as they act to crush it, potentially compromises OWS by shoehorning it within boundaries that can easily dilute and even nullify dissent. That attitude is inadequate, whether coming from a president, a city leader, a political party, a union, or a university administrator. OWS is not asserting simply its right to speak its mind but its power to have its thinking and values matter, and these can be very different things.
Of course, acknowledging and supporting the transgressive power of OWS does not mean the limitless endorsement of anything done in its name. Any movement has the right and obligation to articulate and assert common values, such as non-violence. Efforts to establish and practically enforce movement norms should not be reflexively equated with the assumption by the movement of “police powers,” mirroring those of the state. Tensions have already arisen within OWS (and in Oakland especially, as the scene of tumultuous protests) regarding what range of action is both constructive and acceptable. These necessary debates are best served if rash and reductive judgments, more-radical-than-thou posturing, competition over ideological “purity,” censoriousness, dogmatism, and impulses to factionalism are avoided.
Months from its inception, I remain inclined to think of OWS in terms of multiple breakthroughs, which now frame my comments. The first concerns political discourse — shifts in “the terms of the debate” — from which OWS’s efficacy and broader political identity can be derived. In one sense, OWS has served to confirm what we already knew: that millions of Americans blame primarily excessive corporate power for the systemic ills of the American economy. It is pathetic that it should have taken three-hundred “kids” sleeping out in a concrete-and-marble park, the broadcast on Youtube of a young woman getting maced by police, 800 people being entrapped into arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge, and so forth, to make this social fact present again. But it did. No longer is the Tea Party in the driver’s seat of American politics, as it was as recently as the summer of 2011. As countless pundits have asserted, verified by quantitative analyses of media content, issues of inequality, accountability, and fairness in the American economy and larger society are now ubiquitous in public discourse. Further, OWS has helped frame the conservative diet of lower taxes, smaller government, and fewer regulations not as an expression of individual liberty or fiscal responsibility, but as the raw deal offered, within archetypal OWS rhetoric, by the one percent to maintain its privilege. As a result, America is perhaps approaching, as the 2012 election season advances, the point where it can have a minimally inclusive conversation about what ails it.
This may seem a modest achievement, but it is not. Many voices, with varying measure of credibility, had tried to pull this sword of basic reason from the rock of ludicrous ideology and mostly failed, whether Van Jones, trade union leaders, progressive politicians, or President Obama himself. Indeed, any honest assessment must acknowledge that OWS is, in part, a radical echo of President Obama’s own campaign creed. Candidate Obama preached a deracialized message (to a fault) of middle-class empowerment in efforts to activate a “silent majority” all his own. Obama’s premise was that the American dream, for countless Americans who have worked hard and “played by the rules,” was becoming inaccessible — that the promise of a well-paying and stable job, home ownership without onerous debt, affordable health care for one’s family and education for one’s children, and a livable environment, was growing out of reach.
Regardless of whether Obama’s message was smothered by Republican obstinacy, Obama’s own fecklessness, or his de facto loyalty to the same corporate system disempowering the middle class, the core message of OWS resonated with an established critiques and aspirations that had been driven for more than a year to the margins of national discourse. It should come as no surprise, then, that OWS’s most significant (if still intangible) “gain” has been the recent retooling of the Obama campaign to stress issues of equity and shared sacrifice (however tepid that message and the reforms it suggests). In this second echo, OWS’s peculiar, tripartite character comes in to view: to pressure ostensibly progressive leaders and institutions to fight more aggressively on behalf of their professed beliefs; to argue the implication even of the liberal establishment within corporate dominance; and to charge that the entire political system is so procedurally dysfunctional and clogged with corporate power that the institutions of representative democracy are not adequate for realizing true solutions to the current crisis. Put otherwise, and now in spatial terms, a radical utopian kernel seeking potentially revolutionary change in the form of direct democracy is surrounded by a more strategic skepticism regarding possibilities even for meaningful change within the framework of existing institutions; both these impulses, likely at the fringe of the American mainstream, at once animate and receive succor from an ambient, common-sense populism that desires, through reform politics, the partial righting of basic social wrongs.
How was this breakthrough in political discourse possible? It was achieved on the back of another breakthrough, which I’ll call simply a shift in people’s level of seriousness, with potentially far-reaching consequences. At the core of OWS’s early success is the acceptance in individuals and communities of the need for resistance, a heightened sense of personal responsibility to participate in struggle, and a stubborn faith that one can transform this society, despite the very condition of hopelessness at the center of the OWS complaint. That conviction has expressed itself in a variety of forms. Perhaps above all, countless thousands of people are willing today, in ways they were not just a year ago, to make sacrifices, to take risks, and even go to jail to take and hold this park or bridge or campus encampment, to walk down this street, to protest in this lobby of this bank, at this foreclosure hearing. It’s a profound breakthrough — this readiness to assume risk on a large scale — produced by a social alchemy no one fully understands.
Of course, this shift has precedent, both distant and near. As to the latter, the over-reach of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in backing a Union-busting bill led to the protracted “occupation” of the Wisconsin state house by a combination of workers, students, and others in a festival of left-populist pushback. Organized opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and larger tar sands initiative resulted last summer in approximately 1,000 arrests, in among the largest campaigns of coordinated civil disobedience in years, or even decades. But even so, OWS is different, given the almost total lack of national or regional coordination, the geographic diversity of arrests, and the absence of a single issue (like segregation or the Vietnam War) to galvanize what social scientists call “high-risk activism” on a large scale and to function as a specific target of protest. It is, in historical terms, a remarkable occurrence when critical masses of people, as part of a “protest wave,” are willing to engage in extra-legal protest. We are now living in the days of this rare wonder.
A student of mine, an older Latino gentleman, conveyed this shift with special poignancy. I had asked my lecture class at Manhattan’s New School, many of whose students had been active at OWS protests (and among the arrestees), what felt different, in the nation, in the city, and on campus since OWS has risen. He said admiringly of the young OWSers that “they are not afraid.” The line links up with the great lyric of the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and references something of the pathos and dynamism of the larger Civil Rights Movement. In truth, having myself been in arrest situations, it is likely the case that fear is never eliminated. Rather, some among today’s young appear more afraid of having their futures radically compromised by crippling debt, or the biosphere sacked by corporations, or structural inequalities blight the life chances of their fellow citizens than they are of spending an evening in jail or having their eyes blown out by pepper spray. The shared ability to push past fear is a tremendous asset of a social movements. Of course, OWS has not expressed to date anywhere near the depth of sacrifice as, say, the Freedom Riders struggling to integrate bus lines or Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committees working to secure voting rights for Blacks in the deep South. But it evinces that at least some among a new generation are attempting to seize destiny, challenge power, and make themselves heard beyond the standard means of political advocacy and the heavily scripted confrontations with intransigent authority.
There is a breakthrough as well in the form of politics, what it means to challenge established power and articulate alternatives; here we see innovations within legacies of civil resistance, marked by a commentator as a transition from “civil” to “political disobedience” or, more grandiosely, to a “refusal to be governed” as before. Crucially, many of the protestors are not petitioning for the right to assemble in a predictable, and utterly dismissable, expression of grievances. They are not violating specific, objectionable laws in hopes of changing them, in the fashion of the Civil Rights Movement violating segregation ordinances. Nor are they, for the most part, occupying government or university offices that have the ability to change some particular policy (though that could enter more and more the repertoire).
Rather, and in deviation from established traditions of the protest game, the power of the inaugural gesture of OWS has been to take what, so claim the protesters, all of us already possess: public space (whoever owns the lease) as an expression of the very idea of the public, the commons, the common good. It is to say that corporations and their political minions do not own the parks, and the opera houses and museums they underwrite, nor the air and water and soil and bandwidth they lobby for and claim. Neither are they responsible, whatever their corporate branding, for elemental human experiences like connection and love, or qualities like the imagination. The simple but radical proposition behind occupation, as it has been practiced by OWS, is that with true stewardship of what is already ours, we can do a better job for everyone, perhaps vastly so — that we know how to take care of each other, produce, share, deliberate, disagree, and to keep a park livable, its inhabitants fed, sheltered, and safe. Occupation, in sum, is at once the refusal of a false dependence on commercialized consciousness, the repossession of the public, and an open-air experiment in self-governance that invites people to dream of, think possible, and work for large-scale change.
OWS has “broken through” also in the ways it compels that we rethink the meaning of and public attachments to order, which is arguably a greater priority and visceral desire for some than law, and certainly justice. In this context, I should say that I am fascinated by (if also often fearful of) the skirmishes that break out at the edges of OWS marches. In them, the police evidence their obsession with their power over human bodies, often manifest in police aggression. The protestors, for their part, can on occasion provoke, and blur the line between defiance and needless risk and potentially counterproductive hostility. Yet such refusals to be ordered can be a refreshing challenge to the presumed authority of police or others to tell you can stand here, but not there, or to stop and frisk you—especially if a racial or ethnic “minority”—for no reason at all. At the root of such chafing is to contest why the police and the corporations in the first place are the custodians of order, and what kind of order are they maintaining. To make vivid this point, I invoke the language of one of America’s great resisters, Daniel Berrigan. Explaining in court his raid of a Draft Board office in 1968, he said: “Our apologies good friends for the fracture of good order. … All of us who act against the law turn to the poor of the world … to the victims … to the soldiers who kill and die … because they were so ordered by the authorities of that public order which is in effect a massive institutionalized disorder[.] We say killing is disorder [,] life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize.”
Berrigan’s lines invert conventional understandings of order and disorder, privileging over lawfulness the true, moral order violated by the conduct of institutions and men and the structures of society. Whether newly articulated or not, such a sentiment infuses the ethos and practice of OWS.
Whatever one’s partisanship, even a sober analysis must concede that OWS’s transformative power has lain substantially in its capacity to provoke by mobilizing passion and compassion, anger and hope in newly contestatory ways. Its challenge — at a time when it is unclear in what form OWS any longer exists — is to stay both dynamic and relevant, to lead and not follow. Key to doing so is to have a sharp memory of its founding moment and what enabled it to win such early success. Escalating confrontation, as both an end in itself and as a way to remain media-friendly, is a temptation. To guide such passions, one may well reflect on what else Mr. Berrigan’s good words compel: that one is ethically obligated to preach, embody, and enact a higher moral order, which both drives and disciplines ones conduct.
With this vigilance, OWS has a chance.
Jeremy Varon is Associate Professor of History at The New School, New York City. This essay was adapted from an address he gave at a public forum, "OWS: What's Next?" at the New School on October 19, 2011.
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