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Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

September 29th, 2011 6:07 PM

#OccupyWallStreet Is a Church of Dissent, Not a Protest

Last weekend, I spent a few days with the protesters downtown near Wall Street, and it was an eye-opening experience. The people there want something, but it’s not a list of demands, and it is entirely overlooked by the media and most commentators on the protest.

If all you read are news stories and twitter feeds about #OccupyWallStreet, the most trenchant imagery that will stick in your mind is that of police brutality, and the politics of Wall Street greed. The debate seems to be organized around whether the protest will be “successful” or not, how the protesters are stupid or a new American Tahrir Square, or rhetoric designed in a media sphere that maximizes attention. Glenn Greenwald suitably demolishes the sneering commentariat. But I think there’s something to add about what exactly this protest is, what it is doing, and most of all, what the people there “want”. They don’t have a formal list of demands.

And it’s obvious that this isn’t just about Wall Street, nor is it really a battle of any sort. There are political signs there attacking Fox News, expressing anger about Troy Davis, supporting the Iranian revolution, urging the Federal Reserve be reigned in, and demanding rich people pay their taxes. There are personal signs about debt, war, and medical problems. And people are dressed in costume, carrying lightsabers, and some guys are driving around a truck with a “Top Secret Wikileaks” sign on the side. I asked if they were affiliated with the site, and one of them responded with “That’s what the Secret Service asked”. Most of all, people there are having fun.

What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, “we matter”.

Meaning is a fundamental human need. The act of politicization, of building any movement, is based on individual, and then group self-confidence. As Daniel Ellsberg said, “courage is contagious”. I’m reminded of how Howard Dean campaign worker and current law professor Zephyr Teachout characterized the early antiwar blogosphere and then-radical campaign of Dean, as church-like in their community-building elements. That’s what #OccupyWallStreet reminded me of. Even the general assemblies, where people would speak, and others would respond, had a rhythmic quality to them, similar to churches or synagogues I’ve attended.

You can tell this is a somewhat different animal than other politicized gatherings. No one knows what to expect. There are no explicit demands. It’s not very large. And yet, celebrities are heading to Zuccotti Park. Wall Street traders are sneering and angry. The people there are getting press, but aren’t dominated by it. People are there just to be there, because it feels meaningful. The camp is clean and well-organized, and it feels relevant and topical rather than a therapy space for frustrated radicals. Just a block away is the New York Fed, a large, scary, and imposing building with heavy iron doors, video cameras, and a police presence that scream “go away”.

There are a lot of police, but unlike the portrayal in the press the relationship between the protesters and the police is fairly good. The arrests and macing you saw happened because protesters decided to march to Union Square without a permit, and many joined the march on the way. Police began arresting people to keep control of the streets, and that’s when the macings happened. I’m not downplaying what happened, but context is important for understanding why the camping in the park isn’t really problematic while the marching has seen conflict. Police and firefighters routinely come through the park to make sure there are no open flames and no tents, often to applause. There are hints of a more menacing presence; I was told by several organizers that men dressed in business suits accompanied with what looked like police have on several occasions ordered them to vacate the park, handing protesters official-looking orders that on closer inspection were not actually from any governmental authority. Lawyers at the protest made it clear these were to be ignored.

The organizers themselves seem quite experienced. Adbusters didn’t have much to do with the protest organizing, in fact much of the energy came from people that did anti-budget cut campaigns against Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, as well as the May 12th protest march. The organizers have set up committees to handle most tasks, like media and sanitation. There’s a hotspot, and lots of computing and video equipment to record and broadcast. There are living space areas, and the camp site has had to contend with rain without the benefit of tents (which are illegal).

The protesters make decisions in twice a day consensus-based “general assemblies”, where anyone is allowed to speak. No amplification is allowed, so the crowd has figured out a model to make sure everyone is heard. The speaker says half a sentence, and the crowd repeats it so it can be heard. This continues until the speaker is done. There are hand signals that allow others to express agreement and disagreement. I didn’t spend enough time to really get into the nuts and bolts of the organization, but it doesn’t seem very formal. There’s a deep fear of official spokespeople beginning to monopolize and misinterpret the non-hierarchical model of community protest. Of course, there’s not really that much to do; people are there to be there.

The protesters are what you’d expect, a kind of hippie dippie group of students, anti-globalization activists, and antiwar movement actors. There are backrub circles, innumerable pizzas (“the food of revolutions”), but these people do not think of themselves as fringe in any sense. They believe themselves to represent all Americans who are frustrated by politics and finance. Whether or not this is true, what is happening is that there is a belief that their actions matter, that they themselves are moral beings who have dignity and power simply by the very act of self-expression. This is rare in radical activism, most of it is so infused with cynicism that self-marginalization, deadly irony, and mau mau’ing by professional liberals works to persuade protesters to believe themselves a sort of libertarian nihilists. Not so here. There are people wearing tape over their mouths, grandmothers for peace, signs about new death penalty icon Troy Davis, and signs with coherent messages about debt, the Fed, and various wars. Many of the organizers were inspired by Wisconsin and Egypt, by attacks on teachers, by corruption on Wall Street, by money in politics, and are just happy to be out in the streets after a long period of absence of formal protest.

The level of knowledge among protesters on how Wall Street works is fairly high in terms of abstract conceptualizations, but they don’t actually have a lot of immediate connection to policy-making and financial practice. Furthermore, the space is fraught with the problem of consensus-based anti-leadership organizing. There are no spokespeople, and you can’t get on their media list (they don’t have one). The anti-leadership non-hierarchical consensus method is designed to avoid the way that leaders can be smeared and/or co-opted. It does not really scale, and this is a serious challenge going forward. But ultimately, the energy of just having a bunch of people in one place for a long period of time is very different, and much more interesting, than just a march. The protesters are creating a public space for the discussion of economic justice, just by showing up. Some told me they are planning teach-ins. At one point, one of the organizers suggested protesters do a mass drinking of Hope kool-aid, and mimic a die-off. I asked if they had anything planned for Sept. 29, when the Germany parliament will pass their bailout, and I was told that while they had nothing planned as of yet, someone from Citigroup had come by the night before and told them the German bailout was happening.

Many of the angry establishment liberals are frustrated that this protest has no top-down messaging strategy (this tweet from Dave Roberts of Grist in which he calls the protests “horrific” and “designed to discredit leftie protest” is representative). But these people, who represent the rump of support for Obama, are not part of the conversation here. The conversation is global. And you can sort of tell that this protest really bothers the community on Wall Street, stirring up deep existential questions for the people that work there, many of whom know there is a spectacle going on in the streets below.

I don’t think anyone knows where and how this ends, or if it does. I’ve been part of movements full of meaning just like this, movements that utterly failed based on structural weaknesses and the power of the status quo. They seemed full of life, zest, and ended up as yet another set of bloodless bureaucratic failed institutions. These protests may yet be another false start. I’m told, though, by those who were in successful civic uprisings around the world that they all had many, many false starts. But perhaps success and failure isn’t the right way to think about what’s going on in downtown New York, any more than thinking about a church as successful or failed based on its political objectives is the right way to think about how those in the pews satisfy their thirst for spiritual vigor. What these people have found in themselves, and created for each other, is meaning.

And now, here are a few more pictures.



You can reach Matt Stoller at stoller (at) gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller.

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