The People Should Lead: The Meaning of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

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.

  • Laslanian

    this is very interesting. Perhaps it should have happened right before Obama was reelected but no one really understood how deep and wide the subprime mortgage crisis was or really how utterly cynical it was— betting on a grand scale that poor people will default and setting up so that if you long or short it (and you could short through credit default swaps) you would make money and then never holding a single person accountable was a corporate crime that really should have landed several people in jail. I really admire the people putting themselves out there— and I think it is exactly what needs to be seen, what merits more coverage b/c the only way Obama will have real shot at getting things done is if people get behind him so that congress sees it as in their interest to play to the people. Quick and scattered reply but again Obama has his groove, or his swagger back, and I am hoping that he can implement more change if he gets reelected because he won’t have to worry about getting reelected— so we need to all get behind him and be vocal about it.

  • susanai

    To Laslanian – loved the comment and agree with you.

  • Scott

    If Obama is to be re-elected he will needmore grassroots support. I know the protesters really want nothing to do with politicians, but if the movement keeps growing theymight have to reconcile with each other, particularly those candidates on the Left. I think that would be a very positive development.

  • Regina M Tuma

    Scott, I agree with you that the movment is “a work in progress”. I am reminded that similar comments were made about the protestors in Tahrir Square and that much was also said in MSM about the lack of leadership or leader. I wonder if the protests we are seeing (from Tahrir to Wall Street) are not taking on the very cultural form of the social networks that are used to organize and nurture their appearance in public. On a separate note, I remember that Jeff made a comment in an earlier post of his, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, where he stated that the appropriate response to the Tea Party would require mobilization. I wonder if this is, indeed, what we are witnessing. Finally, although the Occupy Wall Street protest is organic and in the process of developing, at a broader level, its form does also reflect some of the inherent ambivalence we see in our political culture. This is inevitable but not a death sentence for the movement–it is something to overcome. If they do, it will be a mark of their success and our political culture will be better for it.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    I am trying to discern whether the Occupy Wall Street movement is part of a developing response to the Tea Party. I think the first indications of a real alternative were in protests in Madison Wisconsin. The unions joining in now is an important development. More on this soon.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    I am trying to discern whether the Occupy Wall Street movement is part of a developing response to the Tea Party. I think the first indications of a real alternative were in protests in Madison Wisconsin. The unions joining in now is an important development. More on this soon.

  • Scott

    I’ve also wondered about the origins of the movement, but really don’t want to speculate on it too much now. Its interesting that there is some overlap with the Tea Party, regarding the bailouts and crony capitalism, and the status quo, but past that the comparison becomes somewhat strained, because the movement for the most part seems to embrace socialism (but not the charactitured version which the Tea Party presents as the re-birth of the Soviet Union); yet, there seems to be some ambivalence among the protesters regarding capitalism, which they will sooner or later have rectify. However, I don’t think socialism, at least as its practiced in Europe, and capitalism are irreconcilable. Indeed, shall Warren Buffet shall be paying Liberty Park a visit anytime soon, and would he be welcome?

  • IrisDr

    If “Occupy Wall Street” remains a couple of hundred people and fizzles out, then it will be irrelevant. But if it were to grow, then it would be worse than wasteful if it remained totally apolitical. Cynicism would only grow and the result would be a major case of cutting off your nose despite your face. In my opinion it’s just lazy thinking to say “a pox on both your houses, everyone is in Wall Street’s pocket, power to the people, yadda, yadda, yadda.” That’s a sure way of letting the Tea Party win.

    The Tea Party has done tremendous damage, because it’s attached itself to the Republican Party and has inserted their people in government, where they serve as an infection destroying whatever they touch. If they can manage to increase their ranks within government, we will not only have a Republican Congress (catering to the Tea Party), but a Republican President as well, and we would kiss any chance of financial reform, fairness in the tax code, government investment in infrastructure, more teachers, policemen, and firemen (with the ripple effect of creating demand throughout the economy) good-bye. Beyond that, in the name of short term deficit reduction, don’t count on unemployment insurance, or the little social safety net we have to remain. The progress made to expand the number of people with health insurance will be lost, the economy will contract, while the upper one percent will continue to enjoy their riches.

    For dissatisfaction to become an effective force, the protesters must accept the system we have, which consists of two viable parties and work to elect more Democrats. It was hard enough in Obama’s first couple of years to get things done, because even some Democrats act more like Republicans, but now the Tea Party congress can just say no and count on everyone blaming Obama for the slide in the economy. We can’t let this happen! We’ll be in sorry shape if we do.

  • Michael Corey

    I understand what some of the things that the movement is against; however, I have less of an understanding of what the movement is for. Historically, we have seen leadership of movements arise from discontent. I suspect that this could happen again. The benefit would be an articulated and compelling vision with clears goals, values and focused actions. How does the movement intend to rectify what it is against and accomplish its objectives?

    Does the name Occupy Wall Street capture the essence of the movement? I’m not sure. In my view Wall Street is more a symbolic imaginary rather than a specific institution. Is Wall Street a trope for greed, or is it meant to capture all manner and types of financial institutions? Is the discontent with the institutions themselves or the people they represent?

    Ironically, some of the biggest investors are pension funds, many of which represent unions as well as a broad range of other groups and many average people. For instance, a large public employee pension fund service has hundreds of billion of dollars invested domestically and globally, with an emphasis on equities including alternative investments, and smaller amounts in global fixed income real estate, inflation linked vehicles and a very small amount in cash. Over time, the fund has pushed to achieve excellent returns. In my only contact with them about twenty years ago, the fund pushed us to abandon my company’s strategy of building world class new facilities and concentrate on things which used less capital and generated higher returns sooner, something that was not in the best interest of our employees, including many union members, and our investors longer term. This emphasis on short term performance has contributed to the de-industrialization of America and the loss of excellent paying jobs in my opinion. Are the pension fund and the people it represents an example of what being against Wall Street means? Was the fund being greedy to want larger short term, unsustainable financial returns at the expense of longer term performance?

    One definition of greed suggests that it is characterized by a desire for more of something like money, and the drive is considered selfish and excessive? Are the fund and its investors greedy? Is anyone or any entity that wants a superior return greedy? Who should make these judgments?

    Many of the current discontent can be traced to an economy which has been de-industrialized over decades and has become excessively dependent on debt. Excessive debt at the personal, business, institutional, governmental and economy levels is destructive; and part of this is related to agency and ineffective processes. It is very difficult to turn around.

    Few entities can be successful unless they use their competitive advantages. For the United States, this used to include its industrial base; natural resources; fertile land; entrepreneurship; innovation; and work ethic. Private sector opportunities in the United States have eroded as a willingness to capitalize on competitive advantages has ebbed and it has become extremely difficult to gain approvals to improve and build productive facilities and exploit our natural resources. Unless this changes, the prospects for many average Americans looks problematic. Facilities that used to be operated and built in the United States have gravitated to countries which have fewer road blocks, more incentives, and better opportunities for growth. This can be turned around.

  • RosaAngelone

    My hometown newspaper had an article today discussing why some elections have more people turn out to vote than others and why it is best if more people are involved. This is a matter of faith. I believe the world will be a better place if more people are involved in how it is run. The Tea Party was a response of one type of involvement…I don’t like most of what I think the Tea Party represents but the people took action. Now another group is talking in the public square and as a matter of faith I say that is good. It so happens that I support more of what is being said with this protest movement than I do with the Tea Party movement. But not all of it of course..some of those protesters probably think even voting is dumb or pointless but as a matter of faith I believe our country will only be better because more have a place to learn how to speak and act in the public square.

  • michaelf

    Don’t you lunatics get it? A revolution is impossible in a country where we have free elections. So when you lose at the ballot box it means that less than half the people agree with you. Do you propose initiating armed conflict to bring them around to your way of thinking? What you would be doing is subjugating a majority. Your only chance is to convince people that your leftist policies are the best way forward while they are currently failing everywhere else in the world. Good luck with that.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    I see no evidence that anyone here is looking at Occupy Wall Street, the social movement at ground zero, as revolutionary in the sense of overthrowing the American political system or substituting for the ballot box, nothing here and little or nothing downtown about turning away from the ballot box. Rather the demonstration and this discussion are about framing the choices in elections, re-framing, presenting an alternative choice to ones defined by big business and the tea party, putting the issue of the profound increasing inequality of the American condition on the agenda. And calling people lunatics and ignorantly asserting that policies elsewhere are failing without specific referent, is a dogmatic move, not apparent in this post, nor in the other comments following it.

  • Scott

    Those on the “right” have finally taken notice of the Wall Street protest, and for the most part, they are not happy about it one bit (as is evidenced by their typically derisive remarks). Ignorance is certainly playing a major factor. On “InfoWars,” the protesters were characterized as “totalitarian.” Their evidence? Despite the fact that the protesters, as do the majority of Americans, wish to raise taxes on millionaires, the author of the article in question pointed to a sign found in Liberty Park that read: “A government is an entity which holds the monopolistic right to initiate force.” The author took this sign at face value, as if the protester that made it was actually advocating for such a government, rather than condemning it. I found it hard to believe that anyone could have misunderstood so completely.

  • keepingitreal

    Im still trying to figure out how taking Wall Street’s money (you know, the thing everyone’s retirement (401k, etc.. is tied to) and giving it to politicians that will use the money for power and control, will solve anything. At least the money in the corporate hands will ensure that everyone’s mommy and daddy can afford to retire through their investments one day, meaning they can enjoy the end of their life without financial issues, then leave that money to you so you can do the same. Oh, was it your family that never planned nor invested for the future? Not my problem, and its damn sure not corporate Americas….

  • J Coles54

    Wall Street doesn’t use “their” money for power and control? Get real already! And if your 401k is wiped out in a financial crisis, I suppose you’ll think its nobody’s problem but yours. Probably not.

    I would summarize your attitude as follows: “I got mine Jack, screw you!”

  • Casey E. Armstrong

    I have to agree that the movement has done a poor job defining what they are fighting for, and could benefit from more clear articulation. As Jeff Goldfarb explored in his studies of the Romanian revolution, it is simply not enough to say ‘no.’ A movement must also say ‘yes’ to something.

    My interpretation is that “Wall Street” is both a symbol for inequitable wealth which threatens democratic society, and shorthand for the complicity of the financial sector in creating our current economic circumstances.

    As a child of the rust belt I also am glad you pointed out the significance of the erosion of our industrial base. The problems of “Wall Street” are inevitably tied up in many larger issues. I am glad to see Americans on the “left” exercising their rights as passionately as those on the “right” have been. But I do hope that they are able to articulate their beliefs better as time goes on. A leaderless and goal-less movement sounds democratic in theory but, in my limited experience with such actions, it ends up creating cliques where the loudest screamers rise to the top (not a group of equals coming together to define a situation).

  • Casey E. Armstrong

    My greatest hope is that this is the progressive response to the Tea Party. In its inception the Tea Party had just as divergent group of grievants (deficit hawks, birthers, libertarians, anti-federalists, global warming and evolution skeptics…) with nothing to say but ‘no.’ I will reluctantly say that they have succeeded in forming a coherent narrative over the past several years — less government. With the AFL-CIO breaking further from Democrats perhaps there is an opportunity for a new political landscape emerging from the dissatisfaction with the gridlock in DC.

  • Anonymous

    we are beyond reason here. You cannot look at what is being done through the lens of reason. They have spent the $ and they don’t know what the fu*k to do, so they argue against social safety nets. I am trying to think of an apt analogy to kids or teenagers— and I too tired, but you get the point. But we are are on round two with the devolution of Europe, so nothing is getting solved soon.

  • Keepingitreal

    That’s because I’ve worked very hard to get mine without any government handouts, so yeah, you nailed it.

  • Casey E. Armstrong

    While every day DC insightful analysis, I am increasingly concerned what seems to be an increase in ad homenim attacks, and comments that are antithetical to the original intention of this blog as laid out in the “About” section. In comments we are to strive for professionalism and civility. In analyzing the complex situations before us, we are to avoid the temptation to use one-sided arguments and distortions; we are to deliberately consider the situation. Controversial opinions are to be embraced, but our goal is to inform and understand. Controversy doesn’t need to be accompanied by incivility and divisiveness. This blog is something special, and we are all its stewards.

  • Scott

    Yeah, it’s just like Jesus said, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I lost my 401k in a financial meltdown that was not my fault, and you said, ‘Not my problem.’”

  • Michael Corey

    Is there a point when the current demonstrations shift from attention getting to alienating policy makers and public opinion? In July of 1978, the American Journal of Sociology published a quantitative study by Paul Burnstein and William Freudenburg, Changing Public Policy, that dealt with the impacts of antiwar demonstrations and war costs on Senate voting. (Serendipitously, I happened upon it while sorting through my research files). The conclusions might be worthwhile considering relative to the current demonstrations. “Recent demonstrations seem to have moved the Senate in a dovish direction up through the time of the Cambodian invasion; after that, their impact became negative. In other words, those who claimed that the Senate responded positively to antiwar demonstrations and those who claimed exactly the opposite were evidently both partly right. Early demonstrations may have indeed had conscious-raising impact that their supporters claimed, but later demonstrations may also have had the alienating effect that many of their opponents claimed … Demonstrations are more effective for attracting attention than for providing detailed guidance on coalition building.”