By Alan Bean
When New York Times editor Arthur Brisbane asked a few fellow journalists how they would cover Occupy Wall Street, the responses were mostly quizzical: Who are these people? Why are they so angry and why did it take them so long to get that way? Where is the money coming from? Who are the leaders of this leaderless movement? What are their demands? And finally, how long can they keep it up?
As Miles Mogulescu notes in a Huffington Post article, the Occupy movement has spread with amazing rapidity because it is leaderless, radically democratic and “horizontal”. You don’t need to register to join the party; just show up.
If the Occupy phenomenon fizzled tomorrow it would have one great accomplishment to its credit: a change in the national conversation. Six weeks ago, politicians, pundits and pollsters were counting the days till the national debt destroyed us all. Now we’re talking about income inequality, contemplating a tax on financial transactions and asking how we can hold the 1% responsible for wrecking the economy en route to windfall profits.
Everybody knows why the Occupy people are angry. They’ve been angry for a long time, but only recently have they found a constructive and concerted way of channelling that anger. That’s why many of them are flying cross-country to be part of the action.
Who is bankrolling the operation? No one. Hence the tents and the manifest ingenuity of the participants. If you aren’t committed, you can’t hang with this bunch very long.
Still, the looseness of the organization comes with a price. As Adam Nagourney noted earlier this week, thousands of homeless people are mingling with the Occupy protesters. In a sense, this is as it should be. I suspect many of the people who followed Jesus from town to town occupied the most desperate rungs of the social ladder. Jesus welcomed their participation and interpreted their presence as a sign of kingdom come.
But when a big chunk of the crowd is homeless, logistical issues arise.
And then there is the anarchist fringe, many of them wearing Guy Fawkes masks inspired by the cult film, “V for Vendetta”. Last night, some of these people turned violent and destructive at the conclusion of a peaceful protest in Oakland. Perhaps we are only talking about a small percentage of the anarchists in the crowd, joined by opportunistic trouble makers looking for a little fun at the tax payer’s expense. Who knows? (Although I doubt we have much to fear from the Guy Fawkes people.) When no one is checking ID at the door, you can’t control who joins the party.
The civil rights movement ended when the non-violent principle was abandoned by younger activists. When the incendiary rhetoric of a few hot-heads led to real fires, looting and police riots, the narrative changed forever.
Is the Occupy movement non-violent? Maybe. But first they must stop and take a vote. That’s the way radical democracy works. Nothing is permanently settled. No one dictates policy from above. The very qualities that made Occupy Wall Street an easily replicated template come with a distinct downside.
On the other hand, when a few hot heads refuse to play by the rules (because, in the beginning, there aren’t any rules) everyone else is forced to establish boundaries. That, like it or not, is the first step toward bureaucracy. And that’s okay; things can’t remain amorphous and free-flowing forever (as glorious as the early, non-bureaucratic days can be).
The Occupy people are already realizing that they aren’t all marching to the same drummer. This too will require self-definition and boundary setting. A united movement will inevitably fracture into multiple factions. At any rate, this has been the universal rule for spontaneous social movements in the past.
Where’s it all heading? No one knows–that’s part of the appeal. Hopefully, the movement will remain viable long enough to force our beloved President to grow a pair. Watching a gifted president trying to play footsie with the most inflexible autocrats to grace the Capitol since Dixiecrat days has been a deflating embarrassment for progressive Americans everywhere. Barack Obama has more to offer the nation than weak-kneed compromise that inspires contempt in his adversaries and despair among his friends. The conversation change in America couldn’t have come at a better time.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the Occupy movement is in the hands of the occupiers. They are the ones waking up in a cold tent every morning. They are the ones confronting the challenges and taking the impromptu votes. May they vote wisely.