Friday, October 14, 2011

Welcome to the Occupation

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
— R.E.M.

… The future seems to arrive unexpectedly.
— Tom Hayden

On Friday morning at 7 a.m., the 28th day of the Occupy Wall Street movement, officers of the New York City Police Department were set to converge on encampments at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to begin the dismantling of the movement's geographic ground zero. War was widely expected as the cops arrived to execute what may well have been the latest foreclosure for many of the people in the space.

But it didn’t turn out like that. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called off the planned eviction less than four hours before it was set to begin. In the end, the city blinked. That concession made to the OWS movement by the government and machinery of the nation’s biggest city is bigger than a New York City event. It just underscores the power of Occupy, a movement that a month into its existence has defined protest for a new century.

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Occupy’s scope and passion have been seriously underestimated. The mainstream media took two weeks to decide that, yes, there was some real news going on down there in Zuccotti Park after all. Now it leads national news broadcasts and the local news. It’s inescapable. Since Tuesday, and well beyond the epicenter in New York, Occupy protesters were arrested in San Diego, Denver, Portland (Ore.), Los Angeles and other cities. Occupy Seattle protesters were arrested on consecutive nights after occupying a heavily-visited space downtown; some of their number turned up at a fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Occupy's reach beyond its obvious base was also unexpected. According to some news reports, Tea Party stalwarts have made appearances at Occupy events — not as counter-protesters or agitators but as kindred spirits in the idea of ending the crony capitalism that Wall Street symbolizes. In this respect, there’s been a willingness to stifle at least some of the partisan political reflexes that animate our daily interactions.

Strange as it seems, there’s a symmetry, politically improbable but operationally inescapable, between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party loyalists: Both have hit the streets to call for an end to Big Government — either the Big Government in Washington or the Big Government on Wall Street.

Beyond that, there’s no philosophical connection between the two. But for power brokers in Washington, the prospect of another source of unruly citizens willing to step outside Business As Usual — a group that won’t respond to their attempt to control it — is unsettling. That's why Eric Cantor's scared. The House Majority Leader made with the outrage at the Values Voters Summit last week. “I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country,” he said on Friday.

Then as events unfolded and the breadth of this beast started to emerge, and news arrived of Tea Parties making appearances in some solidarity with Occupy … Cantor dialed that back, and fast. On Tuesday he issued a statement on the Occupy wave: “People are upset, and they're justifiably frustrated. They're out of work. The economy is now moving … People are afraid and I get it.”

Occupy spank, Eric.

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It makes common sense that the Occupy movement appeared to have had its origins in New York City. The city of 8.1 million people bears some of the highest housing costs in the nation, a sadly logical consequences of New York's status as nerve center of the world economy. And the city has always been the pre-eminent urban example of the division between haves and have-nots, a farrago born of conflicts over race, ethnicity, class and place of birth popularly explored in the culture in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”

But what gives this thing such resonance, even now, is the way it’s taking hold around the nation and the world. There’s power in the simplicity of its civic branding. The Occupy Your Location Here concept is one that immediately regionalizes and localizes the movement at the same time, deflating any hierarchical notions. Occupy Des Moines has the same gravitas, the same weight in the movement as Occupy Tucson.

If Occupy was strictly a NYC thing, with no applications or pertinence anywhere else, it would scarcely have taken hold of the national imagination the way it has. Instead, OWS has tapped into a discontent with the ruling classes of business and government, a discontent that is borderless. You don’t have to look back that far — to the Arab Spring — to see how a similar grassroots spirit went viral in north Africa and the Middle East.

We’ve been privately, nationalistically secure — almost smug — in our confidence that that kind of chaos couldn’t happen here. But given the energies and actions unleashed in the United States by its ruling class against its middle class (or what’s left of it), the question comes up: how could that kind of chaos, or a variation of it, possibly be avoided?

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Comparisons between the events of the Arab Spring and those of the American Autumn only go so far, of course. The violence in the streets of Cairo and Tripoli has no counterpart here, and the prospect for that happening is pretty slim. When OWS protesters shout “The whole world’s watching!” (reviving the populist cry of anti-war demonstrators in Chicago in 1968), it’s implicit that they hope to be on as close to their best behavior as possible.

But a lot remains unclear about where Occupy goes from here. Two polls from Wednesday bear that out.

A Reuters/IPSOS poll found that, of the 82 percent of respondents who heard about OWS, 38 percent viewed the movement favorably, while 24 percent viewed it unfavorably. Thirty-five percent were undecided.

In a Time magazine/Abt SRBI poll, 54 percent of those who responded viewed the movement favorably, while 23 percent looked at it unfavorably. Twenty-three percent said they don’t know enough to be moved either way.

While Occupy enjoys solid majority votes in both polls, what’s unsettling isn’t the percentages who oppose the movement; it’s the ones sitting on the fence. It’s the vast Undecided around the country, the sizable numbers who Don’t Know Enough that could solidify the Occupy phenomenon, cement it in the national life as nothing less than a seismic reordering of domestic national priorities.

Tom Hayden, California lawmaker, activist and a drum major for justice if there ever was one, understands what hangs in the balance. He went on “Countdown” on Tuesday and broke it all down with a clarity that explained what this all means, or what it could mean.

“This movement needs breathing room,” he told Keith Olbermann. “It’s just materializing and it could go in any direction. The sit-ins started in February 1960 and spread to a hundred cities, 70,000 arrests. The Free Speech movement started over an incident about literature on a table at Sproul Hall [at the University of California-Berkeley] … The future seems to arrive unexpectedly. There’s a danger of trying to over-interpret what’s about to happen, but something is definitely happening.”

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All due props to Hayden, whose social-justice credentials were in order when you were a toddler, but the temptation to over-interpret the Occupy phenomenon is inevitable in the face of a vacuum, in the absence of Occupy’s willingness or ability to interpret itself of the wider public. If you don’t explain or define yourself, someone else will happily do it for you.

That’s where Occupy is right now. The movement has taken to the American streets with passion and banners — like the subject at the end of the R.E.M. song “Welcome to the Occupation,” imploring everyone around him: Listen to me. Listen to me. Listen to me.

An Occupy Day of Action is set to take place around the world on Saturday in an estimated 700 municipalities. Occupy Seattle is planning a march, one intended to dovetail with events planned for Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne and Seoul. And a Saturday protest is planned for London, with demonstrators set to take their cases to the London Stock Exchange — Wall Street Europe.

Clearly, the whole world’s listening now. There’s a lot’s riding on what’s about to be said.

Image credits: Occupy protest march (top), construction worker: Getty Images. Occupy protest sign: Flickr/WarmSleepy. Tear Down This Wall St. sign: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

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