Occupied Wall Street

Some of the demonstrators who promised to stay at the protest on Wall Street until their one demand was answered nearly two weeks ago are still there.  Several dozen are camping out in Zuccotti Park, a private park nearby, and many others are coming to visit.  Among the famous (at least to left-liberal activists) visitors are Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, and Cornel West.  Noam Chomsky has sent an endorsement, which is now posted on Occupy Wall Street’s website.

Just what that one demand is remains completely unclear.  The organizers are vigorously committed to some kind of grassroots democracy, and this has made settling on any one thing–or even agreeing on a menu of policy remedies–practically impossible.  (Prove me wrong on this one.)  There is a consistent general concern with growing income inequality in America and the grossly disproportionate political power of the rich.  The communiques from the demonstrators are said to speak for the “99 percent.”

Meanwhile, the business of business on Wall Street (and elsewhere) has continued, apparently uninterrupted.  Surely, some people who work downtown have stopped by for education, entertainment, or to express support, but the markets are unaffected.

So, what is it all about?  The protesters who’ve issued statements or appeared in interviews report on a range of individual and collective grievances with America, and sometimes with their lives.  The Wall Street action is the first chance they’ve seen to try to take collective action to make their worlds better.

The continued encampment has become a holder for grievances about inequality, the best site many people can find to stake their claims.  While some of the first protesters mean to start a nonviolent revolution to bring capitalism down, many other activists come with, uh, more modest goals.

More than 700 airline pilots marched in uniform, protesting the proposed merger between United and Continental Airlines, and stalled negotiations on their union’s contract.  In recent days, other unions have made appearances, showing support for the demonstrators and the action, and expressing their own spin on the political problem of inequality.

The persistence of the protesters, along with their resistance to settling on a small list of demands, has provided all kinds of other people with an opportunity to speak to broader audiences and to ride the anger and momentum of the protest–and public concern with inequality.  What the Wall Street action means, however, is still being negotiated through action.

There have been a few instances of very rough treatment by police, including aggressive use of pepper spray by a Deputy Inspector, all documented on videos that have gone viral–internationally.  The demonstrators are trying to balance ongoing protest against police brutality with efforts to reach  out to, recruit, and represent, the police.  It’s a difficult balance to manage, and longstanding local grievances with the police could overshadow the broader claims most demonstrators want to make.

A few issues that merit more attention:

1.  The Wall Street protesters have complained about being ignored or dismissed by mainstream media.  Although this may be a little overstated (see New York Times reports, for example), the protest has gotten much more attention overseas.  Most of the links above are from international media, and activist sites–and sympathetic amplifiers on Facebook and Twitter, have been much better at getting the word out.

2.  On Wall Street, activists have compared themselves to the Egyptian demonstrators in Tahrir Square, but this seems more than a little bit of overreach.  It’s certainly not clear that many want to bring the government down, for example.

3.  The Wall Street protest is already spreading, as allies around the country are staging their own occupations in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.  These aren’t yet massive groups, bu there are efforts in many many places.  See Occupy Together for an inventory of actions and links to sites and campaigns around the world.

4.  On the right, a great deal of activist attention has been sucked up in the Republican primary campaigns.  On the left, however, with President Obama unchallenged for the Democratic nomination, the Wall Street-style protests are the best bet that activists can see.  Expect more–for months.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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