One of the things that has struck me most about the opposition to the Occupy movement is the ease with which people approach repeating the trite truisms about the occupiers. No matter how many professionals stand up in support of the protest, everyone reaches for the “unemployed bums” canard. Regardless of the number of specific problems highlighted by protests at each site, nobody seems to have any problem expressing their bewilderment at the lack of a cohesive message. Despite the amount of energy and time put into making the occupied sites more than just an urban camping trip, people throw around the term “lazy” like rice at a wedding.
The other aspect that particularly fascinates me is the tin ear for the lessons of history that these criticisms showcase. Every revolutionary protest movement looks like this, even the ones that we would otherwise support. It doesn’t take an encyclopedic knowledge of history to see the parallels between the occupation of public space and the non-violent resistance of Indians to British rule. Nor does one have to have a degree in the humanities to see the attempted demonization of Occupy’s “hippies” echoing the same condemnations from a generation ago in the person of the actual hippies of the Vietnam resistance movement.
But even if one isn’t well-attuned to those particular stories, it’s hard for me to look at the Occupiers and not see links to the civil rights movement of African-Americans in the mid-20th century. Now this is not to say that the problems of centuries of racism and the fight for human decency is on equivalent footing to corruption in financial and political institutions (which have become two sides of the same ill-gained coin); however, it is worth noting that many of the common bromides hurled at the Occupy movement are shown to be quite hollow by even a cursory examination of history.
“The Occupy people don’t have a plan! All successful protest movements have clear goals and plans that are defined before the protest starts!”
I suppose the second statement there is pure implication from the first. The truth, however, is something quite different. The important thing to remember about the civil rights movement is that it started as something quite diffuse, as a reaction to several problems that all overlapped. Certainly voting rights and housing were part of the civil rights struggle, but they were not established as “the goals” at any point.
While the establishment of the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act were significant milestones, nobody at the beginning of the movement was pushing for federal legislation. It would be far more accurate to state that they were fighting a number of small battles over individual injustices that were linked by a common theme of anti-black racism. It’s hard to imagine that Rosa Parks was pulled from a bus shouting recriminations of the Southern Democrats and white flight from the suburbs of Detroit.
Similarly, the Occupy movement objects to the general state of affairs, and is using its platform to fight individual battles rather than laying out precisely what will make them happy. It is also worth noting that the civil rights movement never really ended. It’s not as though when the ink dried on the Voting Rights Act that Dr. King dusted his hands and said “Good! Dream achieved! Let’s go get funnel cake!” Revolution is a long process, and to imagine that a movement like Occupy will, after only 2 months, have an “end goal” is a ridiculous expectation.
“They should just occupy a voting booth! After all, there’s nothing wrong with the current state of the democratic system!”
I don’t know what kind of person looks at a group protesting corruption in government and says “this problem can be solved by voting”. I hope that kind of person doesn’t practice medicine, or they’re likely to look at a gangrenous wound and prescribe a band-aid and some strong peroxide. The political system is the problem – candidates on both sides of the aisle are beholden to large money donations, and spend more time campaigning than legislating. As a result, we see debates over issues that are volatile but not relevant to the long-term health of the country, since neither side can afford to rock the boat too hard.
Occupy is trying to draw public attention to the flaws in the system that are fueling the fires destroying the very foundations of our society. Again, while the two things are not interchangeable, many members of the civil rights movement were highly skeptical of the political institution, noting the vein of racism that ran through it. Many people, notably Black Nationalists, openly disdained the idea of working within the system or running for office. What they intended to do was set up a separate parallel system by black leaders for self-government. While Occupy is not quite so radical as Stokely Carmichael (which is not a criticism of brother Carmichael, many of whose views I share), it is worth noting that a major component of the Occupy ideology is that the current political system is broken. Urging participation in a broken system is like demanding a new jockey for a dead horse.
It should also be recognized that Occupy is increasing political activism and participation among youth, whose voices have been in decline over many elections. In the same way that the civil rights movement sparked new involvement of black voters and politicians in the post-movement era, I anticipate that we will see many members of the Occupy movement emerge in later years to become strong voices for change in politics. Suggesting that the central positions of the Occupation can be resolved by simply continuing to vote for the lesser of two evils (which many see as being the case today) is wildly ignorant of not only the issues, but contemporary political reality.
“They won’t pick an issue! Everyone knows that protests are always about a single thing that never deviates or evolves!”
There is a perfect image to describe the impetus behind the Occupy movement:
Occupy is not about a single issue – it is a reaction to a system that is seen as unsustainable and not serving the best interests of the majority of people. The system has many facets – legal, financial, political, and philosophical. There will be no ‘magic bullet’ solution to all of these things, and it is important for a movement that wishes to represent the people to listen to the issues the people have. There are, therefore, a variety of causes represented at each Occupation. It was ever thus: the civil rights movement included those who wished to work within the system and those who wished to abolish the system. There were those who thought that the ballot box was sufficient, and those who wanted to ship all black people back to Africa. There were those who wanted fair housing, and others who wanted reparations for slavery.
It is a fallacy to label the civil rights movement as a homogeneous organization working toward a single goal. It is only possible to think of it this way through the rearview look of history. In reality, the civil rights ‘movement’ was a number of smaller movements that were related by a shared outrage to ‘this sort of thing’. In the same way, Occupy will not have a specific issue, and will likely take up causes that don’t seem to be related to bank regulation or the abolition of corporate personhood. This kind of kaleidoscopic look at the problems of the system is symptomatic of two things: 1) a protest movement with a broad base, and 2) a system with a huge number of problems.
I am not sure why it is that people refuse to look at and learn from the lessons of history (please don’t quote Satayana here – that’s not what he was talking about), but even my cursory knowledge of past protest movements shows that Occupy is not an outlier when it comes to expressions of outrage, and its tactics are therefore not uniquely doomed to fail. Critics of the movement will have to do some soul-searching to figure out why they (I assume) support the sit-ins for black civil rights at private businesses, but do not support the tent-ins at public parks for greater corporate and political accountability.
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