In the past week, thousands of protestors have taken to the street in New York City in a movement named by the hashtag “#OCCUPYWALLSTEET.” Dozens of arrests as well as photographs, videos, and tweets by protestors depicting aggressive police actions have turned the attention of the country towards Wall Street.
Some, such as Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, have questioned what exactly the demonstrators want.
Bellafante writes about the occupation with a rather distressing degree of disdain. She disparages the attire and age of the protestors, and notes:
“[their] 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.”
I am not on Wall Street right now, but I’m pretty sure everyone is clear that this is not a “Michelle Bachmann for President” rally.
Perhaps the protestors have no cohesive ask. Honestly, that’s fine with me. In fact, the lack of concrete demands actually makes the protest more powerful. Many groups and organizations stage with a clear political agenda or purpose: for example, to support or oppose a political campaign, a law, or a corporation’s practices. A few-hundred-person union rally is an important and impressive referendum on the importance of unions, but also most likely represents the organizing work of multiple union staff-people.
On the other hand, the #OCCUPYWALLSTEET movement is the result of, quite literally, a hashtag. These protestors had no union organizer to turn them out—they simply came. Is that not testament enough to their dedication?
The October 6th movement, a movement to take the streets of Washington, DC on October 6th “and not go home,” also has no specific demands yet. The website of the movement states, “One way to look at our demands is as a pyramid… At the top — end corporatism and militarism.” The group outlines seven major areas of concern, and notes that “we continue to work on these issues and will continue to do so during the occupation of Freedom Plaza beginning on October 6.” The concrete asks of the demonstration will be decided by the people mobilizing to demonstrate.
In this, the movement seeks to model itself after the popular uprisings that have swept the Middle East in recent months. True, demonstrators in Cairo called for Mubarak’s resignation—but they also wanted a fundamental democratization of their economic and political systems. I think that Salman Rushdie described the Arab Spring well when he noted that “this is not an ideological revolution, or a theological one; it is a demand for liberty and jobs, desires and rights that are common to all human beings.”
Similarly, the Occupation of Wall Street appears to me to be a demand for liberty, jobs, desires, and rights that are common to all human beings. The protestors are united in their demands for reform, for decentralization of political and economic power. Sure, perhaps not all of them understand the legal intricacies of corporate personhood—but a law degree is not necessary for political participation, and it doesn’t take an Ivy League education or a job at the New York Times to tell that our country’s economy is in a bad state.
Maybe in a few days, the Wall Street occupation will be united in a desire to abolish the Federal Reserve or enforce corporate tax payments—or maybe not. Either way, I think that these thousands of Americans are doing an admirable job of demonstrating their opinions, concrete asks or none. Perhaps, then, the right question for America to ask is not “why are they there?” but “what changes can we make so that people are not so angry that they #occupywallstreet?”