The following is a repost of a Facebook note by Responsible Endowments Coalition organizer, Martin Bourqui.
After visiting the Occupy Wall Street protests on their seventh day yesterday I feel like I need to put in writing — and in longer than 140 character status updates! — what I see and hear about what's going on here and the way in which these protests are being perceived, both by me and by those on the right and the left.
So what are these protests all about? Wikipedia may not be the most reliable source, but it's probably the most neutral right now. It defines them this way, as would I:
Occupy Wall Street, or #occupywallstreet, is an ongoing nonviolent demonstration opposing what participants view as negative corporate influence over U.S. politics and a lack of legal repercussions over the global financial crisis.
Hmmmm. This isn't something that should be so hard to get behind, right? 75% of us think that corporations have too much influence on politics today . 67% think that corporations are paying too little in taxes . I can't find solid numbers on how Americans feel about how accountable the banks have been held post-bailout, but I imagine they aren't held in too high of regard. And that's just the American public in general - within my personal network I imagine these anti-bank, anti-corporate, pro-accountability sentiments would be much, much higher.
So why do I see a lack of support for these protests from my peers? How come when I talk about Occupy Wall Street on Facebook, or with my friends, the only overt signs of support I see and hear are from those whom I'll respectfully define as radicals?
Where is the broader left in this discourse - those who I know believe in corporate accountability for the financial crisis, those who support of higher taxes for rich corporations and individuals, who believe that money is destroying our political system? Those who don't necessarily define want to define themselves as 'radical', but who agree with the underlying motivations of these actions? That's right, peers. I'm talking to you! I'd like you to read the thoughts that I've put down here, and to think about what you agree with, and what you're going to do about it.
These protests have the potential to unite a broad cross-section of society towards urgently needed political and cultural change in our society, but they're not meeting it. I'd like to acknowledge and explore why that is.
These events have what politicos (and some organizers, like me) refer to as an "optics problem." In understanding how the majority of society views what's going on, we constantly must be re-evaluating how we all interpret the visuals - images, pictures, videos - that we receive from the front lines of our discourse, that represent the debate.
Take, for example, this photo, one of the precious few images on the Occupy Wall Street wikipedia page right now, one of the only visuals that a huge audience will take in to represent what is going on right now. What do you see? Protestors wearing the masks associated with the organization known as Anonymous, one of whom is wearing a keffiyeh (3) (4).
What is your gut reaction upon seeing this picture? Are you willing to stand next to this person, in solidarity with their self-presentation? Or do you feel ambivalence, hesitation, perhaps even fear? Do you want to be associated with them? Would your parents want to be associated with them? Would your friends? Why or why not?
The Anonymous mask and the keffiyeh are loaded symbols, and they mean very different things to different people. They tap into a much broader set of issues beyond fair taxation, post-financial crisis accountability, and the role of money in our political system. More worryingly, I worry that these symbols are misinterpreted, both by the viewer and potentially even by the wearer.
A lot of the protestors that I have seen both in-person and through the internet reflect a broadly radical self-presentation. In my heart of hearts, I don't want to condemn this. But these protestors speak of "revolution," and they seek to create not just an anti-corporate, pro-fair taxation, pro-bank accountability space. They are trying to envision something much bigger, but I think that many of us are squinting to see it.
Let's contrast the depiction of these protests from a sympathetic, radical documentarian with the depictions of the mainstream media. Let's establish the narratives, and unpack them.
I encourage you all to watch this eight-minute documentary, titled "Nobody Can Predict the Moment of Revolution," capturing interviews with protestors on days five and six. It's a thing of beauty, and a strongly sympathetic depiction of the protests, but the narrative it weaves is much broader than just about corporations, banks, and taxes. Protestors interviewed describe their beliefs this way:
"I don't know how to achieve collective liberation, which we're all striving for, but I think it all needs to happen at the same time. And, you know, we're here, making a stand, we're holding space."
"It's a model for a new society. It's not a protest, in a sense of being against something. It's a way to formulate something new."
Contrast that with the coverage from the New York Times, published on the same day.
Most of those entrenched in Zuccotti Park had indeed traveled from somewhere else; they had come from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and so on with drums, horns, tambourines and, in the instance of one young man, a knee-length burlap vest, fur hat, ski goggles and tiny plastic baby dolls applied to the tips of his fingers.
One of the few New Yorkers I met, a senior at Bronx High School of Science, was stopping by in fits and spurts, against the wishes of his psychiatrist mother, who feared the possibility of tear gas and had chastised her son for giving his allowance to the cause.
That cause, though, in specific terms, was virtually impossible to decipher. The group was clamoring for nothing in particular to happen right away — not the implementation of the Buffett rule or the increased regulation of the financial industry. Some didn’t think government action was the answer because the rich, they believed, would just find new ways to subvert the system.
Some said they were fighting the legal doctrine of corporate personhood; others, not fully understanding what that meant, believed it meant corporations paid no taxes whatsoever. Others came to voice concerns about the death penalty, the drug war, the environment.
“I want to get rid of the combustion engine,” John McKibben, an activist from Vermont, declared as his primary ambition.
Where the documentary "Nobody Can Predict The Revolution" sees visionaries of a new society, the Times sees spoiled children, ignorant, foolhardy loudmouths, and People Who Are Not Like Us.
To be honest, I find both of these depictions highly problematic. "Nobody Can Predict the Moment of Revolution" takes the energy of Occupy Wall Street out of what I interpret to be its current iteration, and into the realm of radical, revolutionary societal visioning. The Times piece, on the other hand, takes a hammer to any emerging narrative, and raises up only the conflicting, fragmented, ignorant sentiments of isolated individuals. And going back to the idea of visual narrative, the Times piece pulls out a topless woman, "blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968," who they declared to be the "default ambassador" of this movement in their intro paragraph. Thanks, Gray Lady. Big favor you did everyone there, by literally picking the craziest person there to be the face of the movement.
What I saw with my own eyes yesterday, this protest, at its core, contains a narrative that is emerging but that is being hijacked on both the right and the left. So now that we can hopefully see this, I want to put these clashing narratives to one side and attempt to draw out what I see taking place. Check it out.
The discourse coming from the left about the role of the banks in our political and economic system, and the way in which corporate interests have defended their own while gravely damaging the economic prospects of all who are not in the top 5%, has been exhausted through our existing political system's channels. When such channels are exhausted, we have a right to take direct action.
The American people must have the right to nonviolently protest, to occupy public space, and to encourage a dialog on what so many of us see as the root causes of the political and economic crises facing the U.S. today. We have a right to assemble in peace, to document what transpires through video, audio, photography, and both the mainstream and underground media.
We have a right to do so without police brutality, which has reared its ugly head. I was deeply disturbed by the footage of peaceful protestors being penned in the street and maced in Union Square. The police presence that I witnessed in lower Manhattan last night, with orange tarp pen fences, vans full of police officers in riot gear, and jail wagons ready to take away scores of protestors, reflects a fear-based approach to get any and all protestors, peaceful or otherwise, to disperse. Hell, it worked on us! The response to this protest is morally bankrupt. I saw it with my own eyes. I attest to it.
However, I am not only disturbed by the response from the powers that be, whether it by the New York Times' coverage of these events, which debilitates and fragments its message, or by the NYPD's fear-based tactics to silence entirely legal and legitimate public discourse.
I am more worried, however, about the inability of the protestors and organizers of the Occupy Wall Street action to coalesce around a cohesive narrative, a moral legitimacy, and a unifying, invitational visual narrative. I am not an anarchist. I do not seek to get rid of the combustion engine. I choose not to wear a keffiyeh. And yet I live a stone's throw across the East River from Wall Street, and literally organize full-time, for my job, around the role of the banks in our economic system.
If anyone should be standing in solidarity with these protests, it would be me - and I am. But If even I feel alienated by the fragmented visual, cultural, political narratives coming out of this action, how on earth are we supposed to unite the entire Left around it?
Change requires unity. I don't have the answers on how to get there, or on how to address these questions. But I'm choosing to shine a light on these problems, in the hopes that we can begin to intentionally tackle them.
So what can you do — whether you agree or disagree with the arguments I'm putting forward?
- If you share in my opposition to the reaction of the powers that be to this protest - whether it be the mainstream media's slanted coverage, or the actions of the NYPD to intimidate, fragment, and dismantle this discourse - please help me in raising awareness. That video of the cops macing the women tied my stomach in knots. Different perspectives are painting completely different pictures of what's going on. Help shine a light.
- If you agree that these protests lack a cohesive narrative, help to promote and define one by joining the discourse, as I am trying to do. Despite the counter-narrative being spun by its opponents, as well as the competing narratives being introduced by some on the Left, I believe that Occupy Wall Street is at its core about the American people standing up to the corporate greed that has permeated our political and economic systems. Please use your privilege as writers, artists, documentarians, activists, college degree holders, and/or owning-class people in our society, to speak up and ask the hard questions that need asking.
- Maybe you literally disagree with everything I'm saying. that's fine. That's great! But don't stay silent. Join the discourse. Write a blog post about it. Email me. Email your network. Write a letter to the editor. Make your voice heard.
- If you want to see the protests continue but choose not to participate, they could still use food, money, and awareness. Speak up. Pay up. Use your resources, even if it's just a Facebook note or a $10 donation.
- However you feel about the protests, if you're in the NYC area, go down there and see it for yourself. Engage with people. If you disagree with people's tactics, language, or presentation, engage with them about it. If you support others, let them know you support them and want to elevate their visual or political narrative. Use all of the tools you have to do so.
- If you would like to share what I wrote here, please feel free to do so. I don't really get how sharing notes on Facebook works (sigh), but feel free to reproduce this. I hope it helps get people's wheels turning.
- Stay informed. The three places I look for information are Occupy Wall Street's unofficial site which contains links, information, and even a live stream; the Occupy Wall Street Wikipedia page, which for better or worse will document the narrative that the majority of people see, and the #occupywallstreet Twitter hash tag, which many people are using to share information and stay updated, whether they're in Lower Manhattan or halfway across the world.
The mainstream media won't show it, but I see, online, thousands upon thousands worldwide watching this unfold and crossing their fingers that these protests will, sooner or later, create a shift in the American political discourse, in the give-and-take of our economic system, and in the power dynamics of our society. People who are college-educated, highly informed, highly resourced individuals, especially those in the NYC area - people whom I'm writing for- hold a huge amount of privilege to make this succeed, fail, or at least make this look more like what we want it to look like.
Whether you agree, disagree, or feel ambivalent about what's taking place this week, it's our right, and our obligation, to speak up, to join this discourse. I don't see it taking place in a meaningful way in our political system or in the media, so let's use the tools we have to help it take place in the spaces we create, whether it be on the internet or in our living rooms. Speak up. Get involved. Get those who aren't involved to be involved. We can't keep our heads buried in the sand forever.