As an American, I have spent the better part of the Obama administration being secretly jealous of my country’s fringe right wing. Though not a particularly elegant or sophisticated movement, they set out with clear and concrete goals, shifted the debate to the right, increased visibility and awareness of their ideology, and got a lot of politicians into office. For three years I’ve wondered why the left couldn’t get up off the couch and start a movement with similar energy and thrust, and now it’s arrived on my own doorstep. The Occupy Wall Street movement has already accomplished more than any other left-oriented political movement of the past three years. They’ve inspired Occupy movements across the country and across the world, and it’s still just the very beginning.
At the start, I had my reservations. What could a bunch of white kids with dreadlocks and Guy Fawkes masks accomplish anyway? But if you focus on the aesthetics of the movement, you completely miss the point. Recently, some of the most effective movements have been some of the ugliest. When the Tea Party had their rallies in DC, did people write op-eds about 300 pound people in lawn chairs reading ‘Rules For Radicals’? When Icelandic people banged on pots and pans and broke windows of their Parliament to disrupt the meetings going on inside, did people write articles complaining that they were being too noisy? Just because the protesters of Occupy Wall Street are smelly doesn’t mean that they’re pointless. Most of the effective movements in recent history didn’t have specific goals when they started, and they weren’t too much to look at either. But often, movements that get things done have some assembly required. The Tea Partiers got their candidates into office and shifted the debate in the US firmly to the right. Despite a few arrests and some disorder, the people of Iceland held small protests with great regularity until the entire government resigned. A core small group of people can be the backbone of a bigger, longer movement that will grow and grow until it accomplishes its goals.
The point of OWS is not to be the protest, but to foster an environment out of which a new movement can grow. They are remarkably well organised, to the point that merely discussing how their General Assemblies and governance work would double the length of this article. Their inevitable goal is complete self-sufficiency, and with the help of their new union alliances, they’ll get there. If you actually head down to the protest site and talk to the people, I’m sure you’ll meet some tired ideologues, but more of the people you’ll meet are proud Americans who are more than eager to discuss their entirely valid criticisms of the country they live in. There was a moment I witnessed, that for me crystallised the movement and its purpose. A 64-year-old man wearing a polo tucked into his khakis and a teenager wearing a Metallica shirt and jeans were discussing the finer points of social security and the level of power that corporations wield in this country. The boy explained that “we are not anti-corporate, we are anti-corporatist,” and the man seemed genuinely shocked to learn of GE’s tax rate for the last fiscal year. Every single time I’ve gone down to Zuccoti park since the occupiers have moved in, I’ve overheard and participated in meaningful and political discussions with people white, black, young, old, liberal, libertarian and conservative, I’m sure I miss many more every minute that I’m not there. As of right now, the park grounds are an athenaeum of sorts; a modern salon with a bit of a gutter punk edge (but not too much), a place in America where a liberal viewpoint is not made irrelevant by the sheer fact that it is liberal. Neither side is happy with the level of power that corporations have, the difference is where they attribute the blame. Even if you don’t agree with the occupiers, I implore you to go down to the site yourself and have some conversations. You may not be entirely convinced, but I’d be surprised if you didn’t walk away with a deeper respect than when you first heard about them.
Occupy Wall Street may not be the most ideologically perfect movement on the block, but they’ve already gotten a huge amount of press and attention for the worldview they espouse, and they’ve inspired many others. Frankly, they don’t need to be complete from the get-go. This is a work in progress, and with every day, their convictions become more firm and more defined, and more and more people pitch in to help. This is the birth of a new political movement, and it’s not pretty.