The Occupation

Public protest isn't about anything as mundane as ten-point programs and lists of demands


A little girl holds a placard during an Occupy Wall Street protest at Times Square in New York / Reuters

The lead headline on the front page of Saturday's "Business Day" section of the New York Times"In Private, Wall St. Bankers Dismiss Protesters as Unsophisticated."

Is it possible to imagine a more obnoxious response to the Occupy Wall Street movement?    "Sophistication" is of course a word defined by these bankers as seeing things precisely their way, as buying into the whole rigged system that the movement exists to protest. They clearly believe that, without an MBA, people lack standing to critique the very entities that are screwing them.

We've seen this sort of thing before, of course: Henry Kissinger regarded the anti-nuclear movement as naive. Opponents of the Vietnam War were initially dismissed as ignorant dupes with no grasp of geopolitics. Civil rights activists were shrugged off as utopian idealists lacking any sense of the country's history and traditions and the realities of federalism. And all were labeled, at one time or another, Communists. People with a stake in the status quo usually choose to see their position as natural and unalterable, and regard those in dissent as dunces or villains.

Which is not to say the movement isn't incoherent, inconsistent, and lacking a clear program. I recently heard Michael Moore give his version of the movement's demands, and it amounted, unsurprisingly, to a groaning buffet table of the progressive causes with which he's been associated, many of them unachievable from a practical point of view, and some of them far removed from the grievances that have actually driven people into the street. He seemed to be trying to take ownership of the protest, and in his zeal missed some of the point. And I recently heard Republican Nicolle Wallace assail Occupy Wall Street for its lack of any credible spokesperson who could speak responsibly for the movement as a whole. She too was missing the point, looking for a lobbying operation while watching a street demonstration.

Popular protest isn't about a neat, discrete set of demands, even when it pretends to be. Maybe the Boston (as distinct from the contemporary) Tea Party was an exception, although even there, I suspect the tea tax was in fact but one grievance among many. But with every protest movement I've witnessed personally, a poll of the participants would have revealed a cacophony of conflicting intent. When the issue was Vietnam, I marched with people who wanted to see Ho Chi Minh victorious, and people who merely wanted a finite pause in Johnson's bombing campaign, and those who wanted the troops brought home immediately, without negotiations and without regard to consequences. Anyone who took part in any civil rights demonstrations knows the spectrum of demands being advocated, from an end to segregation to financial reparations for slavery to some intimidating, unelaborated version of black power. When I went to march against the Iraq War in London in 2003, there were at least as many anti-Zionist placards on display as those specifically related to the war policies of Bush and Cheney. And as for today's Tea Party ... well, don't get me started.

No, public protest isn't about anything as mundane as ten-point programs and lists of demands. It has its purpose, and its justification, in manifesting public discontent with things the participants regard as profoundly wrong, profoundly in need of repair. It's far too messy a medium of expression to allow for a practical strategy of redress. In today's situation, after an almost inexplicable period of quiescence, a large number of people are finally willing to say, That's enough. Wealth disparity in this country is obscene. The absence of regulation of financial institutions has proved catastrophic. The decisive influence of money in our politics has distorted the process beyond anything the Founders could have imagined, let alone foreseen. These things are threatening democracy. They've already gone a considerable distance toward subverting it.

Every protester may have his or her own proposed solution. That simply doesn't matter.  What does matter is that popular refusal to tolerate the current state of affairs appears to be reaching a tipping point. The prosaic, technical work of finding some ameliorating, and no doubt less than thorough, way of making things somewhat better is a matter for elected officials and those who beaver away in government agencies, and won't look exciting and won't provide much in the way of emotional release, and may well feel like a serious anticlimax after all the hoopla, all the tumult and the shouting. But it's the way politics works.  It's the way things change. It's the way the unromantic, prosaic, desk-bound people who make our laws and administer our country get things done. I don't have a problem with that. It's every bit as essential as storming the barricades.

If enough law-makers come to understand that the situation is intolerable, and much more important, that it no longer will be tolerated, then it may just change.  The Glass-Steagall Act wasn't, after all, The Marseillaises.  It didn't have to be.