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Working it out in public: What’s my problem with #OccupyWallStreet?

All day long today I’ve been asking myself what it is about the Occupy Wall Street/Los Angeles/[insert city here] movement that causes me to have such ambivalence and reservations. On the one hand, I believe there is a place for public protest in our political discourse, particularly in light of the dysfunctional corporate print/radio/cable news outlets. There is a place for the public square to be well and fully utilized, for organic movements to press forward and shape political debates, to serve as a voice for people.

To that end, these protests succeed on that level and I applaud them, because they are borne out of anger at inequality and a lopsided system that isn’t working for people. Their statement today pretty clearly lays out their list of grievances. It’s pretty complete. I also appreciated the final conclusion, which allows for solutions which may exist within our current political system.

Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

I also appreciate the emphasis on peacefulness and definitely have no love for what the police, particularly in New York, are doing right now. Pepper-spraying peaceful protesters is provocation. So I applaud the protesters for remaining peaceful and not retaliating when there was justification for it.

So what is it? What is it that has me less than 100% behind their effort? Why am I unwilling to wrap my arms around them and embrace it?

Possibly it is as simple as not witnessing it firsthand. Online communications have a way of skewing toward hyperbole and over-romanticized presentation. Comparing this effort to Tahrir Square, for example, is repellent to me. The goals of Tahrir were entirely different, and involved dislodging a dictator posing as President. Waxing on about this being similar is misstating fact and hyping it into something it’s not, as their declaration clearly states.

Possibly it is the sense that it isn’t inclusive, which is again partly related to online impressions rather than firsthand experience. But then I would say this is more a function of online communications and the desire of some to write off anyone not swooning over the pending revolution. In person, that’s a less likely outcome, and I’m inclined to discount it.

I think what it is, is the sense that discontent expressed doesn’t necessarily lead to a solution. Or maybe, this tweet explains what disquiets me:

I wouldn’t be expecting a near-term political result from this. #ows is aiming at something much deeper & fundamental

Near or far term, I am unwilling to set aside the electoral system as the way to accomplish their stated goals. It has worked for over 2 centuries. Giving up on it, as someone else suggested, is a frightening prospect.

Throughout history, protest has disrupted the status quo to attain specific goals. The anti-war protests of the 60s aimed to end the Vietnam war. The civil rights protests had a goal of attaining equal rights for all citizens, but especially blacks and minorities. These were goals wrought out of unrest and protest, but brought into being through political means, over time.

Each and every concern/complaint listed in that declaration is real and worthy of attention and action. But the action has to begin from the bottom and move up in the form of pressure on the political system. So it’s possible that my reservations stem from the sense that there’s a call to kill
the patient in the process of curing it. I don’t support that.

While Wall Street is a worthy target (as are the bankers and sociopathic traders and speculators), I don’t see killing the corporations as a solution to the problem. What happens to those still employed?

What we have is a serious imbalance. Serious. The pressure is on to balance it. That part of these protests is and will continue to be praiseworthy. But I am committed to change from within the system, rather than destroying it.

I found this Saul Alinsky quote instructive:

There’s another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevski said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and change the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 per cent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose income range from $5,000 to $10,000 a year [in 1971]. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let’s not let it happen by default.

It could be that there’s been a failure to communicate. This isn’t fatal, but it’s worth taking notice that I’m asking questions rather than dismissing everything out of hand. It might be worth answering them for me, rather than assuming I’m an old, stodgy naysayer who wants to diss the entire effort because I have questions. That happened more than once. Let’s hope this time my concerns can be laid to rest rather than magnified.