It’s a good thing I was born to a quasi-apathetic generation. I could never stage a protest for 20 days.
For one thing, I have to work.
Today is 20th day of the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration in Lower Manhattan, and it’s spread throughout the country. It’s super-exciting because the New York folks (who are not actually on Wall Street, so the name is a bit of a failure) are yelling chants and camping out (well, the hard-core people are camping out; the rest are just joining up on the weekends) and painting their faces to look like corporate zombies while they eat fake money. Seven hundred of them got arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge over the weekend. Of course, this means the protestors are now also protesting against police brutality. Which everybody else is against, too, so apparently it depends on how you define it, and they’re defining it as “we got arrested for blocking the bridge.”
The cops did pepper-spray some women who were penned into a little square on the sidewalk and didn’t do anything to deserve it. I’m down with that definition of police brutality.
But I wish I knew what these super-exciting protestors actually want.
I mean I get that they don’t like Wall Street corporate money-eating zombies. But I’m guessing pretty much everybody is against that. Zombies are terrifying. Some of the demonstrators say they’re like the Tea Party movement, but liberal. Which is then, by definition, not at all like the Tea Party movement. And then others say they’re like the Arab Spring demonstrators who brought down their rulers in the Middle East. In fact, Occupy Wall Street’s website says it is using that model.
So I guess one of the things on the list of demands is a coup…?
Wait, there’s not actually a list of demands. And that’s what sort of frustrates me about this demonstration. It seems even the mayor of New York City doesn’t really get it. Michael Bloomberg says the demonstrators aren’t even aiming their protests at the right people. As quoted by the Associated Press: “The protestors are protesting against people who make $40- or $50,000 a year and are struggling to make ends meet. That’s the bottom line. Those are the people who work on Wall Street or in the finance sector.”
Um… Mr. Mayor… I might not know exactly what they want, but I know they’re not protesting the dudes who make $40,000. Perhaps you need a refresher in symbolism. You look like an idiot when you say stuff like that.
I looked at occupywallst.org to see if their mission statement was clear there. Not really. In a sidebar to all the video and photos and calls for solidarity to the vague cause, there’s a summation that says:
“Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”
(Well now I have a rhetorical bone to pick, because there are only two genders, and because most of us are angry to some degree, but I wouldn’t say all 99% exactly have decided they will no longer tolerate it, and this group doesn’t have 99% of the country at their protests. But protests are, to some extent, about rhetoric. So I’ll let it go.)
I don’t have a problem with the people’s right to protest. Protests that started small and gathered steam have helped change the way things get done in this country, despite the dismay of the majority. I believe in standing up for what you think is right, and if you feel that you need to stage a protest, by all means, go ahead. Please make it reasonable, non-violent, and not a catalyst for criminality. (Disturbing the peace and other civil disobedience measures I can handle, to a point.)
But this particular protesting fad that’s sweeping the nation doesn’t seem to have a cohesive point or a broader understanding of implications. I’ve heard some protestors say that they are staying put until the entire American banking system changes. Well… you’re going to be there a long time. Bloomberg is going to mistake you for homeless people and sweep you out when it’s time for holiday tourists. Other protestors want reforms to health care. Some are calling for an end to corporate tax loopholes. There’s a set that wants an end to corporate campaign donations (there is a larger argument that companies have too much influence over government). Still others say the biggest problem is income tax discrepancies. And then there are those who want our entire political system to change. For some people it’s about the educational system. Or the distribution of food. And some of them do want a coup. There are so many different causes that the only thing uniting the group is their anger.
I wasn’t part of the 60s. My frame of reference for the civil rights era is one that benefits from the grace of historical perspective to define it more succinctly. At the time, I suppose it felt largely like chaos and anger and fear and brutality. But it seems that it still had a single message: end discrimination. It seems it had a credible goal, rather than a propensity for overstating that takes away from its validity as a movement. I guess maybe there were a lot of messages back then, a lot of fractured demands. But it’s easy, from a historical, humanist perspective, to see why people fought back. It’s easy to see why people deserved their rights.
It’s harder to see that when we’re talking about concepts like capitalism. Capitalism absolutely has its victims. And it would be ignorant to claim that it’s not as fierce a foe to those victims as the violent and widespread, blatant racism of the pre-civil rights era. The truest victims of capitalism’s crimes are hungry, homeless, hopeless, sick or desperate. Poverty is a plague that claims generations, just like racism. And the two have their inarguable links.
I can support a cause that believes government must empty its pockets of corporate influence, at least to some extent. But there are so many other demands… I can’t tell if that’s really the overarching theme. And if your movement doesn’t seem to have a unified voice, how can you expect it to accomplish anything besides making noise?
I think another part of the reason I’m a little frustrated with these folks is because we have it pretty damned good in this country. It’s far from perfect, and right now it’s unacceptably difficult for a larger group of people than usual. I believe in constantly striving to be better. But on the whole, this country is still the envy of the world, and there’s part of me that feels like using the Arab Spring as a model for rebellion here makes a mockery of the fight those people were fighting. I have to wonder: of all these people protesting, how many of them will vote in November? How many will vote in local races? How many will contact their congressional representatives after that to exercise their voices on varied issues?
And how many are just there because it’s a thrill to join in the frenzy?
I know what democracy looks like. I’m not sure the protestors do. This country is not a democracy; It’s a republic. It’s a republic for a reason. We may be incredibly, angrily frustrated with our representatives, but if we were a true democracy in which nothing was calibrated for weight, it would be absolute madness on a scale we’ve never seen. All the voices in the cacophony would cancel each other out and we would be left with nothing but unproductive, intractable noise and no message. Above the din of everyone yelling, no one would ever be heard.
I’m not saying every person on Capitol Hill is a genius, and I’m certainly not saying they all offer a true representation of their constituents. But I grow increasingly frustrated with a population whose information is limited, but who insist it is educated enough to know how the handle global financial affairs. The reason we’re a republic is that sometimes the People are flat-out stupid and there has to be somebody who knows how things actually work who says, “Yeah, thanks. We’re going to go ahead and ignore you because if we do what you say we’ll all be in the midst of nuclear war and widespread famine within five minutes.” Ungoverned groupthink can be dangerous because it lacks checks and balances. The world is a big place and a small place at the same time, and not everybody plays nicely in the sandbox. It takes finesse to play it right, and the People don’t have that.
But we do have a voice. If you insist you don’t have a voice once the elections are over, you have forgotten that you can call or write or email or show up at the door of your representative or senator and insist on being heard. Sometimes you will be ignored, or deflected, or pawned off on someone else. But you do have a voice. Sometimes a representative does not hear it. Vote them out. Use your voice for something other than shouting at the rain. And don’t confuse the effort to make yourself heard with the effort of getting your way.
Because that will make you just like everyone you are trying to defeat.
What do you think of the protests?