September 19, 2011
Posted by David Karpf
This weekend was the #occupywallst protest in New York. Micah White has another post up at The Guardian’s blog, labeling it a grand success. Others (including myself) are not so sure. The stated public expectation was that 20,000 protesters would arrive, form a tent city, and hold Wall St for several weeks. Instead, a few thousand showed up, and most of those left within a day. The police put up barricades in preparation for the coming anarchy. Instead, they aren’t even bothering to arrest the remaining protesters (who didn’t bother to get a permit).
I spent the weekend monitoring the #occupywallst twitter stream. There wasn’t much traffic, particularly for an action drawing support from Anonymous. It mostly fell into two groups: (1) participants complaining about the “media blackout,” and (2) conservatives making fun of leftist caricatures. I have a bit to say about each of these.
Regarding the “media blackout,” I’ll come right out and say it: the media didn’t cover this because it wasn’t newsworthy. The planning and execution for this event were lackluster. The Theory of Change was nonexistent.
Sometimes, the media actively ignores large-scale collective action. The protesters in Wisconsin last winter had good reason to be upset — that was the largest sustained labor protest in a generation, and editorial staff decided to focus on Charlie Sheen instead. But #occupywallst was no #wiunion. And there’s a lesson in that.
Anarchists and radical organizers have a bit of collective amnesia with regards to the “Battle of Seattle.” The kids in black bandanas were only a very small part of the coalition that shut down the city in October, 1999. Their acts of childish violence against a Starbucks may have become the lasting public image of the event, but they were hardly representative. The bulk of that anti-globalization protest was composed of labor unions, environmentalists, and other organized progressives. All of those groups have deep traditions based in the community organizing traditions of Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez. The real work of organizing bears little resemblance to the attention-grabbing “culture jammers.” The real work involves “talking to one person, then talking to another person, then talking to another.” Organizing is slow, difficult, often thankless, but deeply meaningful work. There are “rules,” you see, even for radicals.
#Occupywallst got no coverage on MSNBC. It got basically no coverage on DailyKos. MoveOn, the PCCC, Rebuild the Dream, and Democracy for America all had better things to do with their time. Adbusters’s “Our Tahrir Square” analogies quickly moved from offensive to pathetic. The netroots and the rest of the progressive movement completely ignored this non-event.
At the end of the day, the failure of this protest animates a deep, longstanding ontological divide within the activist community. There are (at least) two ontologies of organizing. Folks from the Micah White/culture jammer tradition believe that activism is about offering a radical critique of modern society and shining a light on corporate power. Folks from the Marshall Ganz/community organizing tradition believe that activism is about winning tangible victories that improve people’s lives, change the balance of power, and give people a sense of their own power.*
The culture jammers are practicing activism-as-public-art. The community organizers are practicing activism-as-public-process. Both have their place, but we rarely spell out the differences. And they’ll lead you in very different directions. When culture jammers pretend to be organizers, it turns out poorly. That’s what happened this weekend, in a nutshell.
As for the conservative hecklers… well, that was to be expected. Conservative activists spend a lot of time obsessing over radical leftism. They think that everyone from Paul Krugman to Barack Obama to the Sierra Club is a socialist/communist. In truth, there are hardly any socialists left within the Left. When actual socialists and actual communists start screaming for attention, its a bit like spotting a leprechaun.
But I’ve got one thing to say to Michelle Malkin, who referred to the protesters as “Alinskyites:”
#occupywallst was not in the tradition of Alinsky. It lacked a clear target. It did not leverage power towards a realizable goal. It did not fit together into a broader strategic campaign aimed at forcing powerful actors to behave in keeping with the goals and interests of a community.
You want to see Alinskyites? Go to Rebuild the Dream’s Take Back the American Dream Conference, October 3-5 in DC. That’s where the community organizers will be. And you’ll find both their goals, their tactics, and their rhetoric a lot harder to caricature.
*Those are the “three principles of organizing” as outlined by The Midwest Academy in Organizing for Social Change