Saturday, October 1, 2011

Occupying America

For about two weeks now, it’s been one of those events that hides in plain sight, but through no fault of its own. Occupy Wall Street, the seemingly ad hoc group of activists whose protests against the plutocratic plundering of the national economy began on Sept. 17, has aroused the traditionally physical ire of the New York City Police Department, and created victims of that NYPD heavy-handedness.

What it hasn’t attracted, until very recently, is the attention of the mainstream media. That’s subject to change, and fast.

What’s it all about? A YouTube video from Anonymous called for 20,000 people to flood the Wall Street area in a mass protest of American oligarchy, a gathering of citizens made powerful by “using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America.” No matter what other codifying statements surface to explain the events that have roiled lower Manhattan since Sept. 17, a comment from Russ Winter of Hawaii, writing in the City Room blog of The New York Times, seems to put it in perspective:

“As Americans we may bang our head on other matters, but on this we surely agree. In a democracy: progressives; unions; conservatives; tea party; and unaffiliated Americans can govern and work things out. In a kleptocracy, controlled by the banksters, we cannot. We must stop their influence, their motives, and their tricks, from continuing to destroy our democratic republic, and together we can do it. ...

We demand that the resources of our nation no longer be used to coddle and benefit banksters and their minions. We demand that the US Government diligently reign in the parasitic destruction wreaked by Wall Street. We demand that our nation no longer be held hostage to ‘too big to fail’ banks. We demand that solutions be found that stop the Federal Reserve from stealing our future.”

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Martin’s comment has the virtue of being both literate and concise — everything you need for a credo. But the movement itself has already been typified by an unwillingness to say what they stand for, what their objectives really are. “There is definitely a lot of internal pressure that they’re feeling to articulate their list of demands,” said WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal, on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” on Tuesday.

Venugopal went on to describe how some in the movement are resisting a top-down, hierarchical organization structure with one person or a group of people seen as being “in charge” of communicating a manifesto or a statement of objectives. For them, it seems, the very amorphous structure of the movement, its pushback against easy soundbite definition, is one of its foundational powers.

Like it or not, folks, that sounds a lot like an organic, progressive version of the Tea Party (without the Astroturf origins, of course). But that’s the only thing they remotely have in common.

Unlike the Tea Party, the Occupy movement presents itself as a truly bottom-up organization existentially elastic enough to defy being called an “organization,” something that didn’t begin in the suites of Fox News and political action committees and the offices of conservative think tanks.

Unlike the Tea Party, the Occupy movement (to go by its population in New York as documented in news video and YouTube clips) is demographically broad enough — blacks, whites, browns, seniors, everyday people of every description — to represent the broad cross-section of America, and potentially make an impact on the economic policy debate in Washington now, and on the 2012 presidential race that’s already underway.

Timing is everything, and so is momentum. If Occupy takes hold of both, it could be a left-leaning/moderate Tea Party on steroids, one with real grassroots origins, and as such a persuasive populist counterweight to the intrusions of the actual Tea Party on the far right.

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The relatively unknown panorama of the Occupy movement’s intentions could be a challenge in the short term. The news videos over the past few days have shown activists carrying signs protesting Wall Street as an institution — a pretty big target to take down even for the most ambitious and disciplined grassroots protest org.

The Occupiers have a sense of at least reaching for more than they can grasp. Their rhetorical targets are the hedge fund jefes, brokerage mandarins and Gekko wannabes that make Wall Street what it is.

But we’re not talking about rolling the buses up to the estates in Connecticut or the commuter train suburbs on the Metro North line, and shouting bad language at the people inside. This is bigger than that. From all indications, the Occupy movement is a shot at both the mindset and the system that make that walls-and-moats exclusivity, that separation from mainstream pain, possible in the first place.

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The movement may be coalescing around a provocative strategy for getting the public’s attention despite a relative absence of coverage by the mainstream media.

Friday night on “Countdown,” Kevin Zeese, a veteran protest organizer developing an Occupy Washington event on Oct. 6 at Freedom Plaza, put a fresh and frankly brilliant spin on the movement’s intentions, one that grasps the importance of shaping the debate in a 24/7 media age: take on the attributes of the 24/7 media.

“You have six corporate companies that control the news media, and they don’t want to understand, the problem is concentrated corporate wealth. It’s not surprising they don’t get that that’s the problem because they’re a part of the problem.

“One thing we’re doing at our event is we’re advocating for a democratized media,” Zeese said. “We’re telling everybody who comes [that] they are the media. ... ‘Come with your cameras, come with your cell phones and take pictures, be ready to get the word out. We are the media ...”

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Once upon a time in the analog world, Zeese’s claim that “we are the media” would have been seen as a wild dream or a bad joke. But today, and despite the tight concentration of media power in the United States, Zeese’s call has serious teeth.

The power of Facebook and Twitter, Foursquare and other media outlets; the verifying impact of cell phone cameras, tablet cameras and Flip HD cameras; and the relentless populist immediacy of YouTube have leveled the playing field.

Zeese fully comprehends what media professors and analysts have wrangled with for years: the didactic, one-directional relationship between media producer and media consumer is finished. It’s not your father’s media anymore, he seems to say. It’s not even your brother’s media anymore. It’s everyone’s media.

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Zeese never said as much on Friday, but the democratization of media he proposes to bring front and center in Freedom Plaza has already been shown to work. It worked in the streets of Cairo. It worked in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi and elsewhere in the rapidly morphing Maghreb. Whether Occupy can capably engage the wide-open frontiers of 21st century media in a populist battle to transform the relentlessly acquisitive culture and psyche of Wall Street (and that culture’s practitioners in Washington) is an open question.

But on Friday, Zeese offered what could be the rallying cry for this young movement, steeped as much in history as in current events, as much a cri de guerre as a cri de coeur:

“In the Middle Ages, 20 percent of the people owned 90 percent of the wealth. We’re in a situation where one percent owns 95 percent of the wealth. We’re worse than the Middle Ages. We are serfs. It’s time for the serfs to revolt.”

Image credits: Occupy Wall Street sign: Robert Stolarik for The New York Times. Pepper-sprayed protesters: From YouTube video. Kevin Zeese: Current TV.

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