Last week, while observing the nationwide strike on May Day, and also the performance of a sociology student from The New School on Fox News a couple of days later, I wondered about the possibilities and obstacles of reinventing political culture. I was impressed that there was a significant attempt to bring May Day home, and also impressed by powerful media resistance to significant change in our political life.
May Day is celebrated around the world as Labor Day, everywhere, that is, except where it all began, the United States. The holiday commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago and the struggle for decent working conditions and the eight-hour workday. It is an official holiday in over eighty countries, recognized in even more. Yet, until this year, it has been all but ignored in the U.S., except by those far to the left of the political mainstream. Thus, the calls by people associated with Occupy Wall Street for a nationwide general strike was notable, and it was quite striking that there were nationwide demonstrations including many in New York, capped by a large a mass demonstration at Union Square Park, right near my office. Not only leftists were there. Mainstream labor unions were as well. In many ways, I found the gathering to be as impressive as the ones I saw in Zuccotti Park last fall. Yet, it did not attract serious mass media attention.
The New York Times was typical. It had a careful article on May Day in Moscow, but reported the American actions as a local story, focused on minor violence, arrests and traffic disruptions.
The events’ significance did not reach beyond those who immediately were involved or who were already committed to its purpose through social media. Where OWS broke through to a broad public in its initial demonstrations downtown in the Fall, it failed to do so on May Day in demonstrations that were both large and inventive. Beyond the violence of the fringe of those involved in the movement and the . . .
Read more: Media Conspiracy? May Day, The New York Times and Fox
In early October a “Think Tank” sprung up in Occupied Zuccotti Park – Liberty Square. This wasn’t the average think tank; there were no wealthy private donors, no agenda driven research topics, and not a cushy chair or mahogany desk to be found. We had a blanket and eventually a carpet, some signage that we’d rummaged up from stray things left about in the park, and a small space that had to be reclaimed/cleared and cleaned every day for our 12pm start. This was nothing like the pristine halls of the Brookings Institute.
What we did have, though, were ideas and a seemingly endless number of people excited about them. Random passers-by, stalwarts of the occupation, lunchtime bankers, after-work social workers, they were all present, and all had a voice. We talked about race relations, corporate personhood, OWS finances, whether this new world of Liberty Park could ever be anything but a microcosm of the larger society as a whole. Anything was up for discussion, and there was always something to talk about, something to listen to, and always a way to feel engaged in the new revolutionary dialog that had been sprouting up all over the country and world.
Unlike a typical think tank, the People’s Think Tank became an institution organically. We didn’t sign a corporate charter, file any legal registration papers with the state, or even hire any academics (they came organically as well). We handed in a piece of paper with our email addresses on it, a paragraph about what our working group would be, and just simply sat back and let the energy of the people involved in the occupy movement take us wherever it did. It didn’t take long before the Think Tank was a fixture in the park, a place where many were introduced to Occupy, its topics, and its horizontal discussions, dialog, and discourse.
The Think Tank has changed mightily today. It is no longer fixated . . .
Read more: The OWS Think Tank: Then and Now
Occupy’s six-month birthday celebration last Saturday at Zuccotti Park was first spent in celebration: the scene was joyous with friends reuniting after winter hibernation. “Spring training” regimes were conducted. The drum circle was back, and mic checks once again created a collective voice.
But when protestors undertook a spontaneous, albeit brief, reoccupation, they were met with the most violent and unrestrained NYC police force to date. MTA buses were commandeered and over seventy arrests were made. The significance and power of the park was clear once again.
Police violence was immediately challenged with solidarity marches in New York and throughout the country on Sunday. In spite of a winter predicting our demise, Occupy is alive again this spring. Not that we were ever really dead, but since the cops evicted Zuccotti the first time last fall, OWS has been struggling to find a way of staying meaningful without the spectacle of the park. Liberty Park offered a sense of commonality, a point of access, and a feeling of empowerment that has been difficult to replicate.
In fact, as the winter approached, the occupation had already started to weaken. Social problems appeared within the park. The influx of those bearing the stigmas of long-term homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness had already created divisions, cutting across the usual lines of class, race and “mental status.” Neighborhoods and maps developed to segregate social groups, restricting movement within what was established and claimed as a space of “openness.” Just after the fall storm, a woman pushed past me rushing from one side of the park to the other, and I heard her say to a friend, “Oh noooo, we don’t want to get caught in that part of the ‘hood.’ ” That comment stuck.
Many of us felt relieved that the police closed the park – that the occupation went out with a bang, rather than slowly disintegrating in front of an increasingly disinterested television audience, suggesting the movement’s ideals as being fundamentally in conflict to the wider public.
Nonetheless, the movement did continue. The loss of the park . . .
Read more: OWS at Six Months: Reflections on the Winter Occupation
“Protestors have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” -M. Bloomberg
I find this to be the most interesting component of Bloomberg’s statement today. On its face, it appears to be an appeal to the virtues of public discussion and critical public debate. Bloomberg suggests that if the Occupy Wall Street movement is in possession of the most truthful account of our current collective predicament, then it will be proven in the so called marketplace of ideas.
Yet, in my judgment, Bloomberg’s appeal to the tenets of deliberative democracy is nothing more than cynical, and, in fact, a strategic attempt to silence protest and squash democracy. At the forefront of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is a critique of the inequality of voice within the public sphere. The kinds of arguments members of the political elite, such as Bloomberg, are even capable of hearing is precisely what is at issue. Take, for example, Bloomberg’s recent critique of the association of Wall Street Bankers with the 2008 economic collapse. Bloomberg blames the collapse on government housing policy that encouraged the expansion of the home owning class in the United States. In Bloomberg’s mind, the federal government put pressure on lenders to lend to unqualified borrowers. Yet, as Michael Powell of the New York Times points out, all available evidence proves this argument to be baseless. Bloomberg cannot even imagine that Wall Street banks could possibly be at fault for the great ongoing economic calamity we are all suffering through.
A fundamental critical point of OWS is that political elites have difficulty even hearing certain kinds of arguments. The fact that the elite commentators and politicians continuously prove their myopia by misunderstanding the basic structure and symbolics of OWS movement demonstrates the movement’s ongoing critical importance. Some, such as the Times’ David Brooks, acknowledge that the OWS movement has successfully “changed the conversation,” but they still decry the movement’s lack of leadership and what they perceive to be . . .
Read more: Mayor Bloomberg versus Occupy Wall Street