Saturday, October 22, 2011


I'm having issues with the Occupy Wall Street Movement that is everywhere right now (including the spinoffs OccupySF and OccupyOakland). My issues are not related to the common critiques of "what the hell do they want?" and "how the hell are they going to get them?" since I think there are a *lot* of valid demands, some of which are nicely summed up here. Nor am I particularly concerned with the lack of leadership in the "movement" (can a movement lack a leader and structure?) since this seems to be how a lot of the Arab Spring went down, with some/limited success, and honestly, may be the future of networked organizing and revolution.

My issues are slightly different, and partly brought on the other day when I saw a middle aged white woman on CNN speaking as a Tea Party representative. She was asked if she felt there were any similarities between the Tea Party movement and the OccupyWallSt movement. She looked straight at the camera and said something to the effect of "No! Well, we all hate big companies taking our money. Who the heck [sic] doesn't? But other than that? I mean, what do they want??" But I think there are more similarities than the Tea Party representative was willing to own, and surely more than the Occupiers are willing to own. What leftie or liberal out protesting is going to be willing to take that comparison in stride?

Caveat: my only hands-on experience with the Occupy movement was when I went down to 101 Market on Saturday for the Global Day of Action in San Francisco. I got there a little bit after the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence did their thing and arrived right about the time when mass chaos ensued and before protesters started their march, which, it turns out, ended up at City Hall. I left before the end- it had been a long day. Apparently, I missed a very cool thing. The other part of my experience comes from the ever handy twitter which serves as live word of mouth from friends you don't even have. I have been avidly following a couple of acquaintances who are trustworthy sources, and sometims follow the #OccupySF and #OccupyOakland tags. While I wouldn't claim any kind of expertise on the subject, I do feel entitled to a few opinions on the subject.

So here are some of my concerns:

1. Target audience: Per Adbusters Magazine, who, per my understanding, is one of the impetuses behind the movement, one of the stated goals is "to end the monied corruption of our democracy." This is a noble goal, and one I stand behind. The statement includes that OccupyWallSt is "inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas" both of which, also to my understanding, were demands for more democratic governments. So, if the goal is more democratic governments, and transparency, then I suppose I understand camping out in front of City Hall, like the Oakland protesters are doing. However, if the goal is a less corporatized government, than I'm not sure I understand targeting local governments at all. Today the OccupyOakland movement targeted banks (and even got a little disruptive in a Chase branch), which feels more authentically anti-corporate, and the OccupySanFrancisco events often start at 101 Market St, the home of the Federal Reserve, which makes sense: the symbolic home of the nation's money. But local city governments are not responsible for the lack of separation between business and government that I think most of the 99% would agree has caused a lot of the mess we're in both financially and morally.  Sure, there's corruption out there, and some local policies sure seemed tied to corporate ones (the San Francisco Twitter Tax Break comes to mind).  But to me, the target is the state and more, federal government and the corporations who are holding hands, or maybe even being a little more intimate than that.  Local protests on big issues are important, but the Occupy movements seem to have missed their targets, which are perhaps more aptly the folks in DC, corporate headquarters, and locally, state senators/congresspeople, governors, and senators/congresspeople who are more likely to have any real ability to change anything. Right now, I imagine corporations don't really care at all about OccupyEverything: people are out in their tents using internet service, talking on cell phones, driving, and carrying on normal business. This benefits, not hurts the people the Occupy movement are fighting.

2. Misuse of resources: In the same vein, local governments are the ones picking up the tab for these protests.  I discussed this with a friend, who rightly pointed out that this doesn't mean that we shouldn't protest. Every protest involves the use of resources: police come out whether we like it or not, public works cleans up afterwards, etc. But these protests are going on for weeks, taxing the small resources that are available.  Again, this is not an argument against the movements, or protests in general.  However, because of the lack of organization, OccupyOakland, at least, will not talk to the police or the city. (Don't take my word for it: Mother Jones on the ground just quoted this story.) So, when things like the day of action come up, police send out Every Officer for the "just in case" scenario. This does no one any good. Police officers are part of the 99%, and are under orders to be out there: although the public voices won't say it, the officers are people too, who have families and mortgages and payments. A large officer presence alone escalates the situation and creates a cycle where protesters get resentful/violent and officers get resentful/violent, and the whole situation gets out of whack.  Then the brass feel they "need" to send officers en masse to each event, and the protests remain contentious. And each time this happens, more money is drained from the cities' budget. If the movement cooperated, in the form of dialogue, with officials, much of this could be avoided.  I am not suggesting cooptation, or caving, or anything of the like: just another place the movements seem to be missing the mark. I have been to many permitted and unpermitted marches and actions where police are allocated appropriately and inappropriately (most recently the complete overreaction to OpBart).  The difference here is the scale: weeks have passed that could lead to months without dialogue.

3. 99% of who? There is the potential for collaboration and discussion and growth through OccupyWallSt. 

Occupy Oakland, courtesy of S dP, All Rights Reserved
occupysf October 15 Occupy Wall Street solidarity march O15 67
OccupySF, courtesy Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons

But what I've seen, and I think is visible in these two pictures is something that I wouldn't call representative of 99% of the United States, or even the Bay Area.  Perhaps it's different elsewhere, or at different times, but this is what I saw, and what I've seen over and over again in pictures.  White people, dressed in comfortable clothes, mostly young-ish, some families, and some older people.  Some have signs to the effect that they have advanced degrees and can't find work.  Many have fancy cameras, and almost all are armed with smart phones.  Homeless people sleep in the park where OccupyOakland is camped out, but are not, per a reliable source, part of the tent city. They don't have tents (they may have been given tents since I last heard).  These are some onlookers at the march pictured above in SF. Note distinct differences:
Occupy SF, courtesy Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons

Based on the Good article I linked to above, the top 5 demands of the OccupyWallSt'ers are:
1. Affordable Health Care
2. Jobs
3. Home Stability
4. Affordable Education
5. Credit Card Relief
They established these demands/goals by combining a list of posts into these 5 categories.  Taking for granted, for a moment, that these are the most demanded 5 demands of OccupiersOfEverything, it begs the following two questions for me, which I hope are being asked.  1. Are these the demands representative of People of Color? Of people of all economic standings in the 99%? Of which parts of the 99%? 2. What can this movement do to be more inclusive, inviting, and accurately representative of the needs of the 99%? Of people of color? Of the truly poor? Of the entire 99%?   Like the feminist movement claims to be for all women, this movement has the very real potential of claiming to speak for a huge portion of the population while speaking to and for a select, privileged few. I had a small insight into this when I went to the inspiring and inclusive Life is Living event in West Oakland a couple of weeks ago. A couple of young white kids were handing out OccupyOakland fliers there. But they were doing little more than handing out fliers to a bunch of blank faces who were too polite to say no.  For this movement to be anything more than more preaching to the choir, all of the above issues will need to be addressed.

I am part of the 99%.  But I will not be in a tent at City Hall.

Edit to include this awesome piece with Rachel Maddow and pretty awesome intellectual Tim Wise calling it like it is.