The other day someone working for the mainstream media (MSM) seemed to be undecided about how exactly they should disparage a burgeoning movement. First the hypertext link on MSNBC’s website read, “Protesters want to tame Wall Street’s wild ways, but they’re a little wild themselves.” Later in the day it read, “Wall Street protesters spread murky message.” In both cases, clicking on the link would reveal the title of the article, “Familiar refrain: Wall Street protest lacks leaders, clear message,” with the opening lines, “It’s messy. It’s disorganized. At times, the message is all but incoherent.” With the accompanying photos focusing on the disheveled belongings of the protesters scattered about their home base, Liberty Park, the theme was that the seeming lack of organization and consensus of the “Wall Street Protesters” was analogous to the dysfunctional state of American political discourse. Being unsympathetic, skeptical, or even cynical, reporters do find what they’re looking for. Yet such a jaundiced look at the protests, as is typical of much of the media’s coverage, misses something strikingly obvious: what has largely faded in the rest of the country is still alive in Liberty Park– hope and change.
Last week, a young couple from Virginia Beach paid a visit to the park with their two children, one about five or six years old, the other not older than three. They met a young man who was writing a message on a cardboard to protest corporate malfeasance. The couple asked him to explain to their eldest daughter what it was he was protesting about. The young man smiled, and looked at the girl, who shyly averted his glance. “So basically, a few people have a lot of power, and they’re using that power to take advantage of everybody else.” At that point, the girl began to give the young man her undivided attention. “You know, it’s like a bully, we’ve all had plenty of bullies in our lives, and they think of different ways to better their position. And what we have is just that, on a larger scale, going on with the ruling class.” He paused and smiled as the girl’s attention seemed to be waning and then sped up his voice as he finished his explanation, at that point perhaps addressing her parents more than her: “And they’re using the socio-economic infra-structure of this company [sic.]to do that.” The girl’s eyes wandered about the park. Still smiling, and probably in jest, the young man adds, “She looks like she totally got it.”
I cannot say that a description such as this necessarily typifies the movement. If I wanted to emulate the MSM, I would say that the vignette was the protest in a tea cup: the girl being the uncomprehending MSM, not ready or willing to receive a message, which is actually being delivered loud and clear. However, the protest is certainly more than the sum of its parts. A closer look reveals that the lack of hierarchy and permanent leadership does not denote disorganization. (In this way, it resembles the protests in North Africa and the Middle East, including Israel.) A lack of a single unified message does not indicate no message at all. The movement is a work in progress; leadership, structure, and consensus are emerging from the bottom up.
The movement has already formed a number of committees which address the needs of the protesters; one of the most recent is a “Let’s Talk it Out Committee” which has the goal of providing counsel for those protesters that are mentally or emotionally stressed. There are also working groups that address concerns such as medical care, sanitation, and community outreach. Then there is the “General Assembly,” a kind of “free-market” of ideas if you will, which has definite procedural rules, and consists of anyone who wishes to have their voice heard. In fact, even one of its most disorganized aspects, its online Chat Room, has rather strict rules: no ideology or political candidates are to become the topic of discussion. The participants want the movement to grow, and realize that in order for that to happen, the movement must be inclusive and without ideological rigidity. Even the police are considered part of “the 99%,” which perhaps more than anything else, is representative of their message: if you make under $250,000 a year and feel your representatives have been bought by elite interests, we are you.
On the sidewalk near Broadway is the “Welcoming Committee.” A few nights ago, I talked to a young women, wearing a shirt that said “I’m here because I love this country,” that had been camping out in the park 24/7. She complained that a local news outlet claimed that the numbers of protesters was “dwindling,” but she was happy to report that they were actually increasing, and that that morning she had woken up surrounded by several hundred others. When I asked her what she thought about the criticism that they are “leaderless,” she told me that when numbers are large there will naturally need to be leaders, but the structure of the movement was “organic” and different leaders took the reins in different situations.
Recently, Cornel West briefly took the reins of leadership, and addressed the General Assembly before they began their discussion. “There is a sweet spirit in this place,” he began, but stopped as the rest of the assembly repeated his words, as is the procedure when someone addresses them. “I hope you can feel the love and inspiration…” Again the refrain. “… as those strong and everyday people…” This time the crowd isn’t so sure about what was said, and a little laughter can be heard before the crowd tries to repeat what West said, but all that is clear is “everyday people.” West continued, “…take a stand with great courage and passion.
The rest of his speech, minus the refrains, went like this:
“Because we oppose the greed of Wall Street oligarchs, and corporate plutocrats, we free the democratic juices of this country and all the places around the world. I am so blessed to be a part of this. You had me spiritually break dancing all the way here. Cause when you bring folks together, people of all colors, and all cultures, all genders, all sexual orientations, the elite will tremble in their boots. And we will send the message, that this is the US fold, responding to the Arab Spring. And it’s going to hit Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Arizona, and then on to Detroit. To Appalachia, and to people on reservations for our red brothers and sisters. Martin Luther King Junior will smile from the grave as we move step by step to what he called a revolution- don’t be afraid to say revolution- a transfer of power from the oligarchs to ordinary citizens, for the poor children of all colors, the orphans and the widows, the elderly, and the working folk. We can end the prisoner-industrial complex, the military industrial complex, the Wall Street Oligarchy complex, the corporate media multiplex. I want to thank you. It’s a blessing to be a small part of this magnificent gathering. This is the General Assembly consecrated by your witness and your body and your mind.”
The refrain this time is drowned out by the cheers of the crowd.
He left and then someone else briefly took the reign of leadership, but with the disclaimer, “Just because there are facilitators, doesn’t mean that they are leaders. We’re in this together, we want to work it out.”
The idea is that the people should lead. In Liberty Park that idea has actually become reality.