The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, October 13, 2011

One Man's Mob, One Man's Democracy

Revolution or Not, Let the Occupy Wall Street Protestors Holler

What is one to make of Occupy Wall Street? The demonstrations began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and subsequently spread to over seventy cities across the United States. Proponents hail them as a spontaneous, grassroots, populist revolution – the left’s version of the Tea Party, the U.S. version of the Arab Spring. Critics call them disorganized mobs, dupes, socialists, and un-American.

The movement began as the brainchild of the Adbusters Media Foundation, a left-wing Canadian organization. During the summer of 2011, they suggested peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate influence on democracy, the growing wealth gap, and the lack of repercussions/reforms for some of the largest perpetrators in the global financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn.

Occupy Wall Street protestors
in New York City
Other leftist groups pitched in to provide funding and infrastructure support. US Day of Rage, an Internet-based concern spread the initial word. Anonymous, another cyber-based collective promoting civil disobedience, subsequently did the same. has provided financial backing. The NYC General Assembly, an assortment of activists, artists, and students, did most of the organization and planning on the ground in New York. However, the bottom line is that the movement remains highly decentralized and disjointed, with no one person or group in charge.

That incoherence extends to the groups goals/demands. According to Adbusters, the “one demand” of the protests is for President Obama to “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”

Not unexpectedly, additional demands have arisen that are as diverse as each demonstration site and individual protestor – including those running the gamut from inane to offensive. However, several serious demands have emerged as trends among demonstrators, including raising taxes on the rich and corporations, ending corporate welfare, support for union, and protecting Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Influential supporters likening the protests to the Tea Party include Vice-President Joe Biden and former Democratic Senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold, who stated, “This is like the Tea Party – only it’s real . . . By the time this is over, it will make the Tea Party look like . . . a tea party.”

Such judgments are hopelessly premature. If Occupy Wall Street is the left’s version of the Tea Party, it is akin to that movement in its earliest stages of angry rallies and town hall meetings. It is also far from spontaneous. Just as Tea Party funding and other support can be traced back to traditional right wing organization, so traditional left-wing organization and funding catalyzed and maneuvered this movement.

On the other hand, much like the Tea Party, the organizers would not have met with success, in terms of turnout and durability of the demonstrations, if they had not tapped into some type of grassroots, populist sentiments. And much like the Tea Party’s sponsors, the instigators behind Occupy Wall Street have already found their creation evolving into something beyond their initial vision and subsequent ability to control.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Republican Presidential aspirant Herman Cain forwarded an accusation expressed by others that the protests were “planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama Administration.” Cain conceded he “[didn’t] have facts” to back up this charge.

Even if true, the reality is that demonstrators bear little resemblance to an Obama political rally. A survey conducted by New York Magazine found sixty-two percent of protestors expressed sentiments ranging from frustration to outright disappointment in the President. Over a quarter said they “never believed in him” as compared to only one percent who backed him unequivocally.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor articulated a common theme by expressing concerns about protestors as “growing mobs” who condoned “pitting Americans against Americans.” Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney characterized the occupations as “dangerous” and “class warfare,” while Herman Cain termed them “anti-capitalist.” While the New York Magazine survey found a third of the protestors considered capitalism “inherently immoral” and beyond saving, a plurality believed it to be fundamentally good but requiring better regulation.

As journalist and commentator Roland Martin opined on CNN, “Conservatives call this an assault on capitalism. No, Occupy Wall Street is about trying to bring some decency and honesty back to an industry that used to have some.”

Personally, I do not side with those that suggest the movement must gain a more coherent message in order to survive. While some tightening up is preferable and probably inevitable, the underlying concern(s) are already clear.

“Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful,” asserts media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, also on CNN. “Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher . . . [they aim] to force a reconsideration of the way the nation does business and offers hope to those of us who previously felt alone in our belief that the current economic system is broken.”

When Herman Cain derided protestors as misguided, scolding them, “Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself,” he drew an admonishment from fellow Republican Ron Paul. “The system has been biased against the middle class and the poor . . . the people losing jobs, it wasn't their fault that we've followed a deeply flawed economic system.”

I also cannot agree with characterizations of demonstrations as unruly mobs. Reuters recently reported, “One of the hallmarks of the protests has been the relative lack of violence . . . the uprising has been relatively tame compared to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 or the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami in 2003.”

While I agree with those who argue Occupy Wall Street must find still more sources of non-corporate funding to perpetuate and grow, I suggest it needs to add age to its ranks at least as much as it does cash to its coffers. Youth is a demographic that traditionally seldom commands attention/influence or demonstrates protracted commitment. The initial protestors were largely young adults who had often never voted. Diversity has increased but it remains too early to decide if it can/will reach a critical mass that ensures viability.

Others have expressed the legitimate concern that Occupy Wall Street’s agenda, such as one exists, does not address some of the root causes of the financial meltdown. David Brooks of the New York Times expressed surprising frustration with the demonstrators in his October 11 column, arguing they were essentially sweating the small stuff, causing a political circus and once again resulting in missed opportunity for attempts at serious reforms. He terms the demonstrators “milquetoast radicals” for this reason.

I say “surprising” because if this movement has anything in common with the Arab Spring demonstrations that Brooks so admires, it would be the way protestors are attempting to express, albeit imperfectly, “universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.” It will come about in this case by disentangling government from the corrupting influence of big money.

Peter Cohan, venture capitalist and author, argues in Forbes that Occupy Wall Street could have important and long-reaching impacts. “To limit corporate malefaction, we must limit the reach of corporate cash. If OWS inadvertently achieves that aim, society will continue to enjoy the benefits of the corporate state with fewer of its costs.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, responded to what he termed Eric Cantor’s “hypocrisy unbound” for disdaining Occupy Wall Street while celebrating the Tea Party. “I can't understand how one man's mob is another man's democracy,” said Carney. “I think both are expressions that are totally consistent with the American democratic tradition.”

I am highly skeptical that Occupy Wall Street will become the social revolution its progressive masterminds desire. Yet I see no reason to fear it as such either. At best, protestors are lighting the first small candles against a very big and inky darkness. If this is the case, let them shine! At worst, protestors are just cursing against the darkness. If this is the case, let them holler!

If protestors – whether Tea Partiers or Occupy Wall Street “hippies” – are really the start of a revolution, then the wisdom of former President John Kennedy in a 1962 White House speech comes to mind. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Let them holler!


run75441 said...

Hi Bell:

This is reminescent of the 2009 Show Down In Chicago which I attended along with Mary Battori from Banksters. Show Down occurred again this year and again at the same time as the ABA Convention in Chicago. I guess I am still a protester at heart Bell rising to the defense of the little guys . . . wait a minute, that is us!

TheBell said...

Hi run,

I think OWS has a chance to make a big difference in the political debate by redefining the conversation from where it has been placed by the right in recent decades. However, I remain unconvinced it will have the necesary staying power to do so. Still, I certainly hope good will come of it. Thanks for your reply.