Like many, I find the Occupy encampments incredibly interesting—if perplexing at times—and I think there’s a lot of merit in the larger “We are the 99 Percent” concept, which will surely last longer than the occupations. I think both efforts have done much to highlight questions of economic inequality, political corruption and collusion, and state power. There’s a good argument that the Occupy message is lately drifting to one of state power at the expense of the economic argument. But I think these messages are all of a piece. After all, it highlights the government’s enforcement priorities (it’s easier to arrest a bunch of tangible protesters standing in a street than a bunch of financial wizards practicing monetary alchemy) as well as a more metaphorical theme of how powerful interests will scramble to retain a status quo that maintains and consolidates their own power.
By resisting or subverting conventional tactics and rules the movement displayed a kind of strategic brilliance. A few examples:
- It highlights immediate economic problems like the housing crisis and homelessness (they’re living in tents!), spiraling prices (particularly the University of California protests), and, especially, joblessness. After all, who else would have the time for this kind of effort?
- It is grounded in the concept of the peaceful sit-in, which harkens back to the American civil rights movement and, even before that, Gandhi. So it has that sheen of righteousness, particularly when that sheen is a coating of pepper spray.
- It promotes overt creativity in the face of opposition, whether symbolic (Cal’s balloon-borne tents; the 99% bat signal) or practical (the people’s mic, which started as a way to get around a prohibition on megaphones in Zucotti Park; the choice of Zucotti itself, whose confusing public-private legal status they exploited to great effect for almost two months)
- It makes a mockery of the current political system by highlighting how that system has made a mockery of democracy. I’d argue this is the overarching message that encompasses the Wall Street gripes, the fairness issues, the democracy rhetoric, the tension between order and the rights of speech and assembly, etc. And it’s not even a new idea, really.
As the major occupations seem to be winding down and the movement (possibly) reaches a turning point, it’s that last bullet point that I think of when I hear exasperated observers say this movement is not legitimate until it starts organizing phone banks to call congressman, starts letter writing-campaigns and the like. Those are fine things to do, and if done smartly (targeting the rare undecided, open-minded politician), still have potential. But set aside the occasional Occupier’s rhetoric about starting a true revolution and a new kind of government; by staying outside of conventional political tactics, they sidestep the lobbyists and special interests and the politicians themselves. A lot of commentators says Occupy needs to grow up and get overtly political. It’s the classic “reform from the inside” argument used to justify political expedience. But if the political system is rigged to disenfranchise citizens, as the occupiers convincingly argue, then they’d just be setting themselves up for failure.