Saturday, October 1, 2011

Today Wall Street, Tomorrow (insert locale here).

It seems one of the hardest things to do is write about history when it appears to be happening.

For the past two weeks protestors have occupied a park near Wall Street in order to protest our current financial system and its role in screwing up the nation right now. Starting with roughly 5,000 on September 17, 2011, numbers have varied (with estimates ranging from as low as 50 to several hundred or more), it was at first viewed as a novel one-off thing. However, most of the mainstream media covered the initial protest as a blip and then treated the protests as if they never happened. At one point, a protestor's video posted on You Tube even caught people in one building on Wall St drinking champagne in bemusement towards the protestors. People still maintained the occupation at Zuccotti park to varying degrees but the mainstream media refused to take notice. On the last Seturday of September, the NYPD arrested over 80 people in an attack that at one point saw a police deputy inspector pepper spraying people who were already behind a pen of sorts then doing the same to people walking away from him. That, for better or worse, brought Occupy Wall Street to the mainstream media's attention.

That's the basic extremely short version of Occupy Wall Street as a protest movement's evolution from something that was written off by many as a marginal thing to what appears to be a nationwide movement that's grown somehow on its own more via social networking than any established organizing. What's almost as surprising as its apparent sudden beginnings is how it's spread like wildfire nationwide in cities ranging from Boston to Chicago to Columbia, MO to Youngstown, Ohio. The fact that its grown like this actually is something I can guarantee nobody would've predicted a month or so ago.

Yes there are criticisms towards this movement. One of the big ones is that Occupy Wall Street and the similar movements that have pop up throughout America seem to be too amorphic; that there are no hard specific goals or talking points. Yes, there is some truth to this (especially since there's no one leading group for this). However, at the risk of blowback, one can also say that many of the Tea Party protests of the past couple of years were similarly off topic (especially since for every sign about health care reform, there appeared to be more signs that veered towards other topics ranging from somewhat related (I remember one pic of someone with a sign saying "Obamacare means Forced Drugging" [a concern I actually find somewhat legit]) to the Wall St. bailouts to birthers, and veiled threats of violence in regards to the Obama administration. Where they differed was the media narrative (hint: Fox News and talk radio) worked massively to spin this as organic (which, while some tea party movements were organic, others were products of organizations such as Freedomworks who were about as insider as you can get). In addition, the critique of Wall Street actually makes sense when taking into account how the housing bubble turning mortgages into derivatives as well as how bank deregulation led to a situation where the distribution of wealth got so lopsided that they were able to use the "too big to fail" card when called into question by Congress.

It's also true that open ended activism like this is easier to do when there are no work or other obligations. This explains the varying degrees of attendance over the past two weeks. While some people have managed to keep the area occupied, others do what they can in between their jobs, family life, and other things they have to get done in their lives. This is an issue almost every movement has to deal with, especially now when people can't automatically get off work to go to a protest or may have to take care of a sick family member or deal with something else at the moment.

The above concerns are somewhat legitimate. Other criticisms range from mere attempts to dismiss the protestors (such as NY Mayor Bloomberg calling them "misguided") to concern trolling (for example, one post suggesting protestors wear polos and khakis so as not to appear too "hippieish"). This is also to be expected as something every movement faces, especially in the starting phases.

What is interesting here is that while this has been a surprise, it shouldn't have been. The rise in protests in Wisconsin and Ohio against their state's attempts to bust unions is to some degree as much as flicker as the "Arab Spring" protests in middle eastern countries earlier this year (the latter is which has been seen as a reference point more in the media). Also interesting is that, while the media has tended to view this as a strictly left wing situation, there also appears to be reports that some Ron Paul supporters have been joining in. Is this is true, it appears that people are becoming aware that this is far less of a left-right issue as it is a top-bottom issue.

Will this lead to any change? At this point it's way too early to tell. Movements tend to have an ebb and flow that can be hard to predict. In addition, different factions could either unify or fall out depending on circumstances. As for police crackdowns, arrests in Boston and a possible raid in Chicago shows this will be a longer ride than people expect. As for NY, there are reports of the NYPD counter terrorism unit monitoring Occupy Wall Street. These scenarios as well as many others will have an effect on what goes down as the movement arises.

Regardless of the outcome we are witnessing a chapter in history that few, if any, saw coming in the U.S. In two weeks time what most people probably thought was a blip on the national radar has gotten to the point where uniformed airline pilots marched in solidarity with them and get the support of a large union. While proving that a wide swath of people are pissed off at the government (and are trying to resist nonviolently) it also shows that sometimes what you least expect can have the potential to become history in the making.

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