Monday, October 10, 2011

Urban Camping, Activism, and Economic Justice

If you've been paying attention to the news, like really, really paying attention (because lord knows mainstream media isn't giving this a lot of attention), you might have heard of Occupy Wall Street. And then perhaps Occupy Together.

As Occupy Wall Street explains,

On September 17th, men and women of all races, backgrounds, political and religious beliefs, began to organize in nonviolent protest. These men and women represent the 99% with the goal of ending the greed and corruption of the wealthiest 1% of America. Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement which began as a call to action from Adbusters, a Canadian-based anti-consumerist organization.

October 6th marked the beginning of "Occupy Philadelphia." As a radical student in Philadelphia, it should come as no surprise that I attended the 1,000-person + planning meeting prior to the beginning of the occupation, and then spent a significant amount of time there this past weekend.

Me and my friends marching to the Liberty Bell with about 1,000 other protestors on Saturday

Video clips from this weekend
So what's the point of all this?

I actually have mixed feelings about Occupy Wall Street/Philadelphia. On the one hand, I think it is great that there is just a lot of momentum toward creating a critical dialogue about corporations, bail outs, and the economic crisis. This kind of passion for a social movement* has not really been seen for decades, this can be viewed as the long-awaited large-scale response to the past couple years of Tea Party madness, and it's always nice to see people from all sorts of backgrounds unifying around a single cause.

On the other hand... the whole single cause thing is a little unclear. While "officially" Occupy Wall Street/Together is about ending corporate greed and restoring the whole idea that democracy should be for you know... the people instead of da $$, the message gets muddled. With protestors with signs like, "Palpatine 2012," "Philly <3's Weed," "Stop Picket Signs," it's not incredibly surprising that a lot of people are criticizing the whole thing. I mean, I spent the majority of my weekend there (and my free time is precious. Scant and PRECIOUS!) and I remain kind of skeptical.

Again, on the one hand, there are benefits to a progressive movement that leaves room for all sorts of critiques about the economic and political system, but on the other hand, I didn't actually hear a lot of what could be legitimate critiques about the economic and political benefits to marijuana legalization, since most of those people were just shouting things like, "Let us smoke!" (I don't mean to call out smokers in particular, there are a lot of problematic issues at Occupy Together, this is just a really easy one to articulate.)

And despite an official statement from Occupy Wall Street about the whole thing, a lot of people still aren't clear on the whole thing. I showed up at Occupy Philadelphia on Saturday around 10am and got recruited to stand behind the information desk. I answered a lot of questions about which way donations should go, but I also answered a lot of questions about what this whole thing was. A lot of confused people walked through the Philadelphia City Hall and had no idea why there were 30 tents and a bunch of grungy looking occupiers with signs making cars honk at them. And I think my short explanation (something like, "Occupy Philadelphia is an expression of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, which is a protest movement that has been going on four four weeks in New York to critique the way that government attention has gone more to corporations, bank bail outs, and the richest 1% of the country rather than give the people who most need their help--who the government is supposed to represent--adequate services and representation.") was generally pretty good, but I'm fairly concerned with being able to back up my actions with words and I think about this stuff. I'm not sure everyone does the same.

Case in point, my friends and I spent Saturday night in a tent at City Hall (surprise, Mom!) and when I woke up on Sunday morning, I heard a reporter interviewing one bleary-eyed protestor. This kid was not doing a great job answering this man's questions, but I will say that this was around 8:30 am on Sunday morning. And also, this reporter was kind of being a dick.

[I have written the reporter's questions as one word to try to illustrate the speed and aggression with which he was speaking]

Reporter: Yousaidthatyou'reheretoprotestcorporations. Whatarethetoptenworstcorporationsintheworldinyouropinion?
Not-a-Morning-Person-Protestor: Um, Comcast, [inaudible], G.E. --
Reporter: YousayG.E., butG.E.ownsMSNBC. DoyounotsupportMSNBC? WhynotNewscorp?
Not-a-Morning-Person-Protestor: Um...
So there's a significant amount of criticism that should go both ways. Occupy Wall Street/Together can't expect to be taken seriously unless they conform to the way that legitimate social movements conduct themselves. I know that plays into hegemony blah blah, but for real, there needs to be some clear, rhetorical explanations that protestors need to memorize if they can't explain them on their own to be seen as intelligent people instead of lazy, anarchist weirdos who prefer urban camping to conforming to society's living standards. Yes, there are white, dreadlocked anarchists camping at city hall, but there are also lots of employed people. And homeless people. And people of color. And grandparents. And middle class people. I talked to a lot of really interesting people with a lot of really interesting reasons for being there. But just because those representing the "99 %" may not necessarily be representative of the whole "99 %," that doesn't give the media a reason to de-legitimize the whole thing. That doesn't give reporters a license to act like assholes. That doesn't give the general public permission to ignore the fact that there are really important demands being made.

As a democratic socialist, what I'm interested in is democratic reforms to gain more equality in the social and economic spheres, and Occupy Wall Street/Together provides a really interesting platform for that. I'm going to continue to stop by City Hall when I can because I think it is important to express solidarity with the occupiers, and I'm curious to see how Occupy Wall Street/Together develops as it goes on. Later on I might post about kyriarchy at Occupy Wall Street/Together, but for now this is what I got. It's a complex issue and I'm curious as to what other people's opinions of it are, and what your experiences with other Occupy events have been. Comment!

*I think whether or not Occupy Wall Street/Together counts as a movement is debatable.


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