October 1, 2011
Posted by David Karpf
The #occupywallstreet protests are entering their third week, and have started to attract some real attention. After a police brutality incident last weekend, mainstream media sources have begun paying attention. Major unions and netroots groups have voted to support the protests, and the core of a few hundred “occupiers” show no sign of leaving Zuccotti Park anytime soon. A particularly poignant Tumblr site, “We are the 99%,” has been aggregating stories of the genuine carnage left by our current economic mess. Solidarity “occupations” are cropping up in dozens of cities as well.
I’ve read a couple of interesting takes on this development recently — Micah Sifry and Mark Engler are both worth a read. Credit where credit is due, the protests are proving to have a lot more staying power than I had expected when I wrote my original post. Mea culpa, I spoke a bit too soon. That said, the successes of the event are of a very particular type. They’re succeeding in spreading a meme, even while lacking a clear demand or clear target. I think that helps further highlight the competing “ontologies of organizing” that I was discussing last time. What I wrote then was:
“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.”
#OccupyWallStreet has been a success in the activism-as-public-art sense. The meme has drawn attention, spread, and become something of a touchstone for people wanting to talk about the utter collapse of the American Dream. The images and language resonate. The hashtag has gone viral. That’s a meaningful achievement, one that community organizing can rarely achieve.
The ongoing problems with the action lie in the activism-as-public-process domain. Two weeks in, they still have no specific demand. They aren’t applying and escalating pressure on specific targets who can eventually give them what they want. What would a tangible victory for the #occupiers look like, exactly? It has been easy for journalists to dismiss and conservatives to caricature, because there is no clear message to maintain discipline around.
What’s more, the action itself isn’t all that large. I stopped by yesterday in an effort to figure out what I was missing. From a block and a half away, you’d have no idea that there’s a protest going on. The park isn’t all that large, and ambient traffic noise means that any coordinated chants are impossible to hear. Wall Street isn’t being occupied. The NYSE is neither being shut down nor even inconvenienced. In the Alinskyite mode of campaign organizing, there’s still plenty to cringe at. Measured by their own initial benchmarks – 20,000 people, in an ongoing encampment – the action hasn’t performed well.
But that’s the point: activism-as-public-art is tremendously valuable, but ontologically distinct from activism-as-public-process. It’s a different beast than the strategic mobilization of citizen power that we generally practice in community organizing and political advocacy campaigns. Its success is measured in different ways. It has a different social utility. As such, it doesn’t really matter whether 200, 2,000, or 20,000 people are physically present in Zuccotti Park – either way, they’re not going to actually shut down the NYSE . The purpose is to inject culturally resonant imagery into the public discourse. The notion that “young people are rising up, occupying Wall Street itself,” is powerful, regardless of numbers.
The nice thing about cultural touchstones like this is that they can become a rallying point to organize around. We’re already seeing it a bit, with Van Jones (from Rebuild the Dream) invoking the occupation and relating it to the organization’s mission and goals. We’ll see more of it soon. Groups will use the hashtag to argue for the American Jobs Act, or in campaigns to pressure Bank of America. Yesterday the Progressive Change Campaign Committee tweeted, “BREAKING: CA Attorney General Kamala Harris rejects bank immunity! Join 75,000
@BoldProgressives: http://pccc.me/qxTvbk #occupywallstreet.” The lack of any clear demands by the occupiers makes #occupywallstreet a meta-brand of sorts. And that’s a good thing. The original occupiers won’t like it, and they’re sure to complain that more traditional, reformist organizations are diluting the message. But it could prove to be a powerful mixture, particularly if everyone “plays nice” with one another.
#occupyWallStreet is succeeding as activism-as-public-art. It isn’t putting specific pressure on specific, powerful targets, though. Ontologically, that’s not what that sort of activism is attempting to do. Now the other types of activists (the community organizers/activism-as-public-process types) will start building off of that success, using it to advance specific goals and leverage pressure on specific targets. And that’s when things might get particularly interesting.