Whither the Occupation

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

In the New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg is skeptical about the future of Occupy:


Nevertheless, as Occupy Wall Street enters its fifth month, dislodged from most of the public spaces it had staked out around the country last fall, the movement seems weakened, its future uncertain. It sometimes appears to be driven by a series of tactics designed to maintain its public presence with no discernible strategy or goal--a kind of muddled, loose-themed ubiquity. The movement has proven adept at provoking media attention, but one may wonder what it amounts to, apart from its ability to reaffirm its status as a kind of protest brand name. Some core organizers are painfully aware of the situation. 

"When I step out of the Occupy bubble, I discover that people have no coherent idea of who we are. They think we're a bunch of angry kids," Katie Davison told me. Amin Husain, a graduate of Columbia Law School who worked eighteen hours a day in corporate financing and property law before quitting to devote himself to the movement full time, expressed frustration at the fact that people were having trouble "grasping what we stand for..."

Of course this takes us back to the original critique--a lack of focus and goals:

Jackie DiSalvo, Occupy Wall Street's labor expert, felt that after the encampment in Zuccotti Park was uprooted "a set of demands was needed, to define the movement to itself, to bind it together." One demand DiSalvo would like to see is for a WPA-like jobs project funded by taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. "But I know it would never pass the General Assembly," she said, referring to the informal body comprised of anyone who showed up that made decisions in Zuccotti Park. She also hoped that OWS would run candidates in 2012, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But again, she admitted, "OWS would never endorse them." 

In October, a "Demands Group" did spring up among the protesters. When members of the group went public with a few suggestions, the General Assembly attempted to vote them out of existence and by some accounts succeeded. Today, a version of the group exists with 410 members who, according to the movement's website, are "developing the concept of demands" (italics mine). Instead of debating actual demands, they are asking how a group "can create a process where their wants & needs can be communicated."

Greenberg did succeed in one effort to get some an on the record goal:

When I asked Amin and Katie what Occupy Wall Street's ultimate goal was, they said, "A government accountable to the people, freed up from corporate influence." It seemed that this pointed to a simple, single demand, something that many in the movement had been seeking since September: a campaign finance law that would ban private contributions and restrict candidates to the use of public money. Several detailed proposals for such a law already existed, including one from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig that, though imperfect, would attack, in Lessig's words, "the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first." 

As I spoke, I could sense the impatience of my listeners. I wasn't getting the point. Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street's principles. Katie maintained that Occupy Wall Street didn't yet have "a broad enough base" to make such a demand with any reasonable expectation that it could be met. And Amin said, "It doesn't matter what particular laws you pass. We're not about laws."

I think that's the crux of the problem. There's an argument that the process of federal legislation, at this point, is crippled by deep systemic problems. The filibuster is an obvious example. It's also worth pointing out that there is a space for activism beyond electoral politics.

But laws exist for a very good reason. They are--roughly put--a compact between citizens and the state detailing the guidelines for governance. Laws--and their alteration or abolishment--are the means by which we change the compact. The alternative, to my mind, is revolution.

At the end of the piece Greenberg notes that the leadership is seeking to emulate the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. I hope no one told him that directly. If they did, Occupy reflects a poor understanding of that movement's lessons. The Civil Rights movement neither eschewed the hard work of mapping out concrete goals, nor shied away from changing laws.

The sit-ins were an attempt to desegregate public and private facilities. Segregation was made possible by law. The Civil Rights movement sought the overthrow of those laws and the establishment of new ones. The Voting Rights Act delivered the South out of quasi-feudalism into democracy. People who were alive then will gladly testify that this was a real and historically significant accomplishment.

To my mind, Occupy's greatest contribution was placing the wealth gap on the radar. But the Civil Rights movement didn't merely seek to put segregation "on the radar."  It sought to end it. To merely highlight the problem, and then to refuse to engage  would have been everything the Civil Rights movement wasn't. It would have been cynical.

Cynicism wasn't an actual option for John Lewis. I don't know if the same can be said for Occupy. But then they lost me at Trinity.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/02/whither-the-occupation/252441/