Roseanne, the comedian, actress, producer, and a sort of populist progressive, dropped in on the Wall Street occupation, and delivered brief prepared remarks, then improvised. I got the link from someone on Facebook, because her appearance didn’t make much of an impact in national news.
It’s hard to get a sense of just what’s going on in the Wall Street occupation, which has clearly drawn far smaller numbers than the initiators called for. I got a brief report from a veteran of the 1979 protest, who expressed disappointment with the event and the state of progressive politics in general. He said the numbers were small, the event disorganized, and the demands completely unclear. The demonstrators projected entitlement, naivete, and political isolation, he said (I paraphrase). To the extent the occupation has appeared in mainstream media, this evaluation seems common (Business Insider has published updates.)
These days, we don’t have to wait for a newsletter or memoir to hear what the activists say and think. Occupy Wall Street has been publishing updates at least daily. (I bet they tweet more frequently.) And Global Revolution has been providing a livestream feed of events. The story I’ve gotten is that a few people have continued the occupation, generating numbers in the low hundreds for events during the week, and a few people have been arrested. Police haven’t allowed the demonstrators to put up anything resembling protection from the elements, like tarps and tents, and a few additional protests have sparked here and there. Note that both Roseanne and Occupy Wall Street stress that the police, working people not big bankers or capitalists, are not the enemy, but potential allies. It doesn’t look like that yet.
So, what are we to make of all this? I’d note the critical importance of old-fashioned organizing, recruiting organizations and people, arguing about demands, and working the media, in getting a coherent event organized and a message out. The attractive promise of base democracy and spontaneous events that the new media suggests practically means that all kinds of people with all kinds of politics can claim to speak for the protest, and those not yet deeply committed are unlikely to find ready handles to latch onto. Meanwhile, bloggers working laptops powered by small portable generators can get their word out, reporting events that larger media outlets are well-prepared to ignore, but the audiences they reach are, uh, limited.
Wall Street has long seemed an attractive target for protesters, but it’s hard to go beyond the event. In 1967, for example, the Yippies asked for a tour of the exchange and threw a few hundred (real and fake) dollar bills over the side of the gallery to watch the traders scramble; some did. It’s good street theater–and there must be some good photos somewhere–but what was the political demand? or impact?
It’s tough for activists to figure out a piece of global capitalism to challenge effectively. (Meetings of supranational institutions like the World Bank, the G-20, or the IMF have been great for events.) Wall Street is a tough target, conceptually as well as physically. All sorts of businesses go to the stock exchange to raise capital, including companies that claim to be green and humane. Increasingly, with more and more training online and brokers offices scattered out to New Jersey and beyond, even making a show of trying to interrupt the practice of global business is more elusive. And explaining what you want can seem inordinately vague–which is even worse than utopian.