x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Winter: Occupy Wall Street protesters driven, and directionless

Seasons of Change A rallying cry delivered on Twitter sparked a protest against capitalism that changed the way revolutions are organised.

Using this image in a Twitter campaign, the Canadian magazine Adbusters tapped into the growing discontent in North America.
Using this image in a Twitter campaign, the Canadian magazine Adbusters tapped into the growing discontent in North America.

It will be remembered as a banner year for American democracy. Emboldened by economic crisis and inspired by revolutionary upheaval overseas, its citizens took to the streets in 2011 to show their frustration with stale political leadership. In doing so, they awakened a fresh discussion about the very nature of democracy in the United States and Occupy Wall Street (OWS) became an inescapable component of the international political landscape.

As an idea and a rallying cry, "Occupy Wall Street" is now a concept that has been adopted around the world. Protests from London to Tel Aviv have used its battle cry of embracing the power of the forgotten majority. Ironically, its roots can be tracked to the very consumerist trends its founders have been rallying against, most notably the marketability of a revolution in a time of global unrest.

Last July, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, best known for its sharp attention-grabbing stunts like "Buy Nothing Day", began the hashtag "occupywallstreet" on Twitter and disseminated an iconic poster portraying a ballerina precariously balancing atop the Wall Street bull. With these subtle moves, Adbusters tapped into the growing discontent in North America, and provided a rallying point for activists in the United States.

In September, a group of 1,000 activists answered the Adbusters call and marched to the barricaded New York Stock Exchange in the heart of Lower Manhattan. Unable to literally occupy Wall Street, they descended on two privately owned spaces designated for public use close by, the atrium of Deutsche Bank's North American headquarters and Zuccotti Park, which became the site of a lively tent encampment and the epicentre of the movement. It was precisely the choice of privately owned public spaces that protected the activists from immediate eviction by New York City law-enforcement officials.

The early days are a haze to most of the seasoned core of OWS. "Every day felt like a dog year," William Dobbs, a member of the group's press team told me in a phone conversation. Lauren Minis, a native of New York City, recently returned from a long trip abroad and was looking for a job when the occupation began. Disenchanted with an American political system that does not represent her values and a cynical electorate seemingly unable or unwilling to change the nature of the system, she was naturally drawn to the public outburst of direct democracy that has typified OWS. Immediately after her first visit, she assumed a leadership position in the sustainability working group.

As the movement grew and without a clear manifesto, US media outlets struggled to place it in the traditional political map. Some mainstream news organisations attempted to portray it as one of entitlement by focusing on the large numbers of unemployed college students, outfitted with shiny Apple computers, who made up the protesters' ranks.

Despite the media's apparent confusion, excessive crowd control measures exercised by local police forces - including critically wounding an Iraqi war veteran with a rubber bullet during the evacuation of the Occupy Oakland encampment - guaranteed international media exposure. Without the bellicose reaction of the police, it is doubtful the movement would have been able to enjoy such lavish coverage. Who says protesters need to be violent when the system they are confronting provides all the violence necessary to grab the headlines?

The mainstream US political establishment has used Occupy Wall Street as a platform to attack policies and blame "the other". The "blame game" of American politics has pushed people like Alejandro Verla, 31, a public health worker and member of the empowerment and action working group at OWS, to seek out different types of political action they see embodied in the movement. "I worked for two months straight to get Obama elected," Verla told me. "Now I want nothing to do with mainstream politics. We need to change the way Americans think about politics and democracy."

Inside a quirky coffee shop in the affluent Upper East Side neighbourhood of Manhattan, Joshua Stephens, a 30-something professional dog walker, explained OWS with a liberal smattering of Foucault, Deleuze and classic anarchist theory. A member of the outreach and education working group, Stevens noted that the occupation has opened a space for Americans to acquire the dexterity necessary to engage in direct democracy. Between sips of thick espresso, he triumphantly pointed out that every person who attends a general assembly meeting - the nightly consensus gatherings that determine the Occupy movement's strategy - leaves radicalised in some way. For OWS, this has been its greatest success and perhaps its only goal.

For Stevens and many others, OWS has changed traditional notions of how the left operates in the United States. In recent years, that group has watched grassroots right-wing movements (like the Tea Party) achieve electoral results and concrete media success. For many, social issues have been ignored due to the need to combat American foreign policy blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not only has OWS demonstrated that the left is concerned with such issues but it has also confirmed that the rest of the world is willing to stand in solidarity with an American struggle for income equality.

OWS, according to Stephens, has placed the American left at the centre of an international movement of dissent.

"It is strange that OWS has gained such international presence," Micha Whiteman, a press liaison officer for the movement told me in the heart of the Zuccotti Park encampment at the beginning of November. "I remember the inspiration that I had while watching the Egyptian revolution unfold on Al Jazeera. The funny thing is that I had to watch [it] online because Al Jazeera is not available in the United States. Now Egyptians are watching our movement unfold with the same hopeful anticipation."

The growth and rhetoric of OWS has clear similarities with other revolutions that shook the globe this year, but this summer's Israeli tent protests seem to be nearly identical. Those protests began when a small group of young Tel Aviv residents erected a tent encampment in the middle of the city's posh Rothschild Boulevard to demonstrate against high rents. Within a matter of weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding greater economic equality and social justice. However, the tent protesters refused to deal with the "political" issues of occupation and the institutional discrimination that non-Jewish citizens of Israel face on a daily basis, leading some to voice criticism at the honesty of the movement.

Israeli demonstrators argued vociferously that Israeli society had become too apathetic to economic policies that reflect incredible income inequality and the greed of Israeli politicians. According to its leaders, the absence of a "political" discussion concerning Palestinians and their lack of clear demands allowed for a space of radicalisation where rank-and-file Israelis could debate politics in order to learn a new language of democratic discourse. At the height of the movement, 500,000 Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa - the proportional equivalent of 17 million Americans - demanding social justice.

Yet, by the end of summer, the Israeli movement had all but fizzled away. With the tent encampments evacuated by law-enforcement officials, many of the protesters simply went back to their normal lives. Occupy Wall Street has clearly learnt an important lesson from its Israeli counterpart. Namely, that core social issues must be dealt with directly and not pushed aside.

For the past month, tent encampments from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have been evicted by police forces with surprising regularity. On November 15, Zuccotti Park was cleared by New York City police officers and is now only being used for meetings during daylight hours. A court case is pending to see whether the activists will be allowed to return to the park. Some activists have responded to the evictions with protest marches from New York City to Washington DC as well as planned blockades of West Coast port facilities. The activists are fighting to stay relevant now that their tent cities have disappeared and it is unclear whether OWS will succeed. For some involved in the movement it is time to regroup, return home and plan larger actions for next year.

Exactly what has the Occupy Wall Street movement accomplished in its short existence?

This unavoidable question has plagued it from the beginning but might miss the point, according to many of those living in tents across the nation. Unable to change the system from within, the OWS movement has successfully amended the national political landscape in the United States. By challenging income inequality, grassroots activists have presented an often ignored demand to expand democratic enfranchisement to a broad majority of Americans.

The growth and international support for the movement, coupled with a deep ongoing crisis in the global economy, has guaranteed that the discontent projected by Occupy Wall Street will certainly not disappear anytime soon. Despite clear plans for the future and even without explaining exactly what she meant in concrete terms, Lauren Minis ended our conversation on an upbeat note, "We are working on creating a new paradigm that is so appealing that people don't have to think twice about walking away from the old one."

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Jerusalem.