In my New England boarding school, we had a ‘Free Speech Box’, a wooden-framed 1×2 foot box—with a lock. All content displayed in the box had to be preapproved by the administration. It usually remained empty.
I was reminded of this when I heard about Occupy Wall Street, the grassroots movement gone global with a fervor unseen since 1968. Seeing it spread from my home in New York 3500 miles across fibbre-optic cables to Edinburgh, so close to my home away from home, gave me chills. Could this really be happening?
Inspired by the Arab Spring and protests in Spain, Italy, and other European countries, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) started as the brainchild of Kalle Lasn, the editor of Adbusters, a social activist magazine. While Adbusters initiated the call for the first protest on September 17, they are far from responsible for what the movement has become.
OWS is truly an Internet revolution. It has expanded seemingly organically, with protests organized through Facebook and Twitter, its flagship site occupywallstreet.org and its assortment of sister sites. Students, professors, labor unions, and celebrities have all joined the cause.
In protests of yesteryear a charismatic mouthpiece electrified crowds. However, the landmark of OWS is its claim of being leaderless, another idea appropriated from the Arab and European protests.
For a movement derided by the press as disorganised, OWS is an amazing conglomerate of organised chaos. Occupiers have sectioned off into work groups covering everything from media and press to sanitation. There is even a publication circulating called The Occupied Wall Street Journal. The New York Post has reported that the occupiers have received up to $230,000 in donations, from errant bills stuffed in a plastic jar, to basic necessities.
The OWS has created a unique culture in Zuccotti Park. With no formal governing body, the OWS works out tactical decisions in general assemblies, a process called “consensus” that involves anybody and everybody. Since protestors have been banned from using loudspeakers, they have resorted to the human mic. Whenever anybody speaks, the crowd around him or her shouts what was said so everybody can hear. It can be a time-consuming, but each phrase repeated can be unifying for the occupiers, their every thought reinforced by their peers. Whoever wants to speak is placed on the “stack,” a list of names diligently taken by an OWS volunteer. No measure can be concluded unless there is unanimous agreement.
The dedication to eschewing hierarchy for horizontal direct democracy has left OWS vulnerable to criticism. One issue singled out is its lack of focus. The main premise could be loosely defined as a rallying cry against the “Gomorrah of Wall Street” and the corruption of financial and federal institutions.
While American politicians discuss the implication of medical care, taxes and national debt, they fail to tackle the real underlying problem; the financial system as it is; the class struggle and widening gap between rich and poor; a population that does not understand how so little has changed since the credit crunch. Many Americans believe their government is run by the social “elite” and the rich that use their power to lobby their way to more money and power, while the low and middle class have no say.
Bonuses have remained a strong focal point of discussion among protestors. The belief that salaries at higher organizational levels have become excessive is debatable. It is difficult to change a system that has penetrated the functioning of the banking industry. The spiteful image of the greedy banker has fueled the occupation even more as people fight for equality.
Although some protestors are taking things to the extreme, by calling for the removal of capitalism, the real issue at hand is the execution of capitalism. The ‘hard-work’ beliefs of the American dream where replaced with corporatism, a strong focus on lobbying, bailouts in the case of failure and the privatization of capital. They are outraged by monopolistic organizations that have long been claimed to be “too big to fail”. Protestors are not concerned with political values: the left and the right are joining to protest for a common cause.
We need to be careful, though. There are always multiple levels to any organized resistance. Although the cry for financial help after nearly 5 million foreclosures and bad debt sounds emotionally appealing, the economic reality is much harsher. The political realms are filled with a spread of different opinions. How to solve the debt crisis, how to prevent further recession, how to deal with socialist needs: all these question do not have one specific answer, but depend on viewpoints and values. Ending up with one solution that will satisfy all parties involved is ultimately one of the greatest challenges of the modern “democracy”. Every demand has consequences. Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, claims that an extension of the new tax on high-income individuals (which protestors want renewed) could cause the rich to move out of New York and take with them their income tax revenue and the jobs they create.
The occupiers have all the passion, but not yet the substance to take on the reconstruction of an entire new financial system. The disconnect between rhetoric and reality has proved to be their greatest setback, and it remains to be seen whether they will make the progress they desire.
Yet the OWS influence cannot be denied. After the call for global revolution on October 15, “Occupy” movements have sprung up in cities all over the world. The demands to right mend global capitalism have even spread close to St Andrews. In Edinburgh, the roughly 200 protestors have been battling the rain in the past week. Protestors in St Andrews Square have announced three broad requests: They claim they do not know the answers to these issues, but merely want to ask the question. The protestors feel it is time for the Scottish government to start tackling the issues that plague the people. Edinburgh Officials have claimed they will ensure peaceful demonstration but also recognize their right for an opinion. Bank officials have been told to act normally and not cause any unrest.
In light of the United States government’s positive response to the revolutions in Libya and Egypt, it is surprising to see how politicians and administrators have reacted to OWS in the States. In Zuccotti Park, protestors have been denied sleeping bags and tents, and been relegated to, as Glenn Greenwald put it, “Orwellian-named free speech zones.” In our modern value system, we place great value on this freedom of speech, but, as revolution spreads, it becomes increasingly hard to predict how we will react when we meet it face-to-face.
Just like my New England boarding school, the US allows criticism to be rained on all other parties, and then has the audacity to place the OWS protesters in a Free Speech box. Ultimately, the protestors are demanding the change they were promised after the credit crunch. Like Slovenian social activist Slavoj Zizek said, “We are allowed to think about alternatives. … We do not live in the best possible world. … There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want?”