What does a protest do?

Demonstrators at last week's Occupy Wall Street protests object to the Euro, the Reddit logo, semiological uncertainty and running out of cardboard.

The protestors who camped out on the streets of New York’s financial district as part of Occupy Wall Street did not disrupt much. Mostly, they blended in with the other people camping on the streets of New York as part of the ongoing Don’t Have a Place to Live demonstration, which also is probably related to Wall Street. That’s what OWS is upset about, kind of. The ostensibly leaderless group convened in order to show that they will “no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” They did it by going down to Zuccotti Park and tolerating it in person, shortly before they decamped to tolerate it from a distance in Union Square and also before they got rounded up in plastic netting and pepper sprayed.

The question of whether  the NYPD acted appropriately—as usual, several people were arrested for resisting arrest, arguably the signature crime of contemporary New York—threatens to overshadow the more compelling question, which is what these protests were designed to accomplish and how anyone could tell if they did. The Times paints a particularly sharp picture of unrelenting vagueness:

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.

Interviewing random protestors is not the best way to capture the ideology of a movement. Yet if it is unclear what, specifically, the protestors wanted, how could a reasonable person believe that protest would help them get it? The general complaint of the demonstration—that 1% of the population was enjoying enormous, even historic wealth while the rest of the country stagnates—seems particularly au courant. It’s on a lot of people’s minds, in one form or another. But in this period of heightened consciousness, is raising consciousness the solution?

That phrase—raising consciousness—is, I submit, one of the greatest obstacles to real change facing the grassroots left. How do you know when consciousness has been raised? People pay attention to something. How do you raise consciousness? Through protest, which forces people to pay attention to you, however briefly. In what way do people with raised consciousness behave differently? Well, they’re more likely to participate in protests…

Consciousness-raising is a holdover from the 1960s, when a larger number of our national problems seemed to do with national awareness. If your problem is that Bull Connor is turning attack dogs on old ladies who think black people should be allowed to eat in restaurants, drawing national attention to localized injustice is a fine strategy. It should be noted, though, that the civil rights movement did not succeed on protest alone. There was that whole bus boycott/federal legislation/specific demands thing, so that civil rights activists were acting to make others do things. A protest is an act unto itself; it is both an outcome and a means of achieving it, which means it cannot fail. In what way, then, could it possibly succeed?

I believe that the complaint(s) voiced by Occupy Wall Street is legitimate. A small percentage of wealthy Americans do exercise inordinate influence over the nation and its politics, and they didn’t get there by lacking consciousness of what they’re doing to everybody else. Those people pass through Grand Central Station. They’ve seen how the other half and the other 98% of their half lives. The whole point of power is that you don’t have to give a rat’s ass with saffron rémoulade and fig salad what other people think, and increasing the number of people thinking it will not solve the problem. It won’t even threaten it.

Who knows how many extra people began to oppose Wall Street—whatever that is—and subsequently got encircled in plastic nets as a result of last week’s demonstrations? More fun question: who knows what sort of financial and tax reform laws could be drafted in 2013 if those willing to wave signs and sleep on the street were also willing to volunteer for a political lobbying organization ten hours a week. Interviewed in the Times, Anna Sluka said she didn’t think government action would solve anything, since the rich would simply co-opt that, too. “I’m not for interference,” she said. “I hope this all gets people who have a lot to think: ‘I’m not going to go to Barcelona for three weeks. I’m going to sponsor a small town in need.'” That’s the power of hope: you can do it wherever, even outside, and you can’t screw it up because it’s an expression and not an act. When they’ve taken everything else, hope is probably the last thing that 1% will leave us.

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  1. The comment is a little silly because the implication is that the amount of money a wealthy person spends on a vacation could be meaningfully put to use in changing the fortunes of a small town.

    How would that work?

  2. @jdott – the comment is a little silly because making noise on Wall Street is unlikely to make anyone at all think of forgoing that trip to Barcelona for the sake of anyone, let alone a small town.

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