Jackie DiSalvo, Occupy Wall Street’s labor expert, felt that after the encampment in Zuccotti Park was uprooted “a set of demands was needed, to define the movement to itself, to bind it together.” One demand DiSalvo would like to see is for a WPA-like jobs project funded by taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. “But I know it would never pass the General Assembly,” she said, referring to the informal body comprised of anyone who showed up that made decisions in Zuccotti Park. She also hoped that OWS would run candidates in 2012, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But again, she admitted, “OWS would never endorse them.”
In October, a “Demands Group” did spring up among the protesters. When members of the group went public with a few suggestions, the General Assembly attempted to vote them out of existence and by some accounts succeeded. Today, a version of the group exists with 410 members who, according to the movement’s website, are “developing the concept of demands” (italics mine). Instead of debating actual demands, they are asking how a group “can create a process where their wants & needs can be communicated.”
I discussed with some organizers the recent efforts of environmentalist groups to stop the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry sand tar oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. According to leading climate scientists, the oil, which is exceptionally dirty, would release a huge amount of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, with disastrous results. Environmentalists have waged a highly disciplined campaign against the pipeline, including acts of civil disobedience that culminated in the arrest of more than a thousand protesters in front of the White House in August.
Unlike OWS, the environmentalist movement has been around for decades, with well-funded organizations, a base of well-to-do donors, and a large bloc of voters who campaign for or against politicians according to their positions on the environment. Bill McKibben, a leader of the Keystone protest, was able to meet with a senior White House adviser in November. Shortly thereafter Obama promised to delay any decision about the pipeline until its environmental impact had been more thoroughly studied.
The protest over the pipeline seemed to be an example of how civil disobedience combined with old-fashioned organizational politics and specific demands could influence policy. Still, in December, Republicans, wishing to fast-track the project, attached it to an eleventh-hour bill to extend a payroll tax cut that the Democrats were eager to pass.
The bill went through, giving Obama—who, because the pipeline crosses an international border, has ultimate authority to approve or cancel the project—only sixty days to decide. He has since indicated that it will likely be canceled. To some of the people I spoke with at Occupy Wall Street, this episode revealed the futility of “playing the demands game.” After months of hard work and putting bodies on the line, you get used as a bargaining chip in some cynical political showdown. The problem, they said, was systemic and couldn’t be addressed one issue at a time. McKibben, an ardent supporter of OWS, didn’t disagree. What he admires most about OWS, he told me, “is the education they are doing about the extent of corporate power in government. We can’t fight every pipeline. What’s needed is a change of political consciousness.” In fact, a new pipeline is still in question.
When I asked Amin and Katie what Occupy Wall Street’s ultimate goal was, they said, “A government accountable to the people, freed up from corporate influence.” It seemed that this pointed to a simple, single demand, something that many in the movement had been seeking since September: a campaign finance law that would ban private contributions and restrict candidates to the use of public money. Several detailed proposals for such a law already existed, including one from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig that, though imperfect, would attack, in Lessig’s words, “the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first.”3
As I spoke, I could sense the impatience of my listeners. I wasn’t getting the point. Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street’s principles. Katie maintained that Occupy Wall Street didn’t yet have “a broad enough base” to make such a demand with any reasonable expectation that it could be met. And Amin said, “It doesn’t matter what particular laws you pass. We’re not about laws.” They saw themselves as a counterculture; and to continue to survive as such they had to remain uncontaminated by the culture they opposed.
But in what capacity would they survive? During the time they held Zuccotti Park, the movement had been able to expand on its own terms. The park had been an ongoing, live-action, twenty-four-hours-a-day spectacle, a model village—or a state within the state, as protesters preferred to think of it—like the exhibits of the future one used to visit at the World’s Fair. People would come off the street, from Idaho or Europe, get drawn into a debate, become involved.
Organizers described Occupy Wall Street as “a way of being,” of “sharing your life together in assembly.” To participate fully in its process of “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based” democracy, you had to make the movement a central part of your existence. For many, this posed an insurmountable problem. A social worker and single mother with little free time told me that she had given up trying to join Occupy Wall Street because she couldn’t figure out how to do so “without hanging out with them all the time.” The ambitions of the core group of activists were more cultural than political, in the sense that they sought to influence the way people think about their lives. “Ours is a transformational movement,” Amin told me with a solemn air. Transformation had to occur face to face; what it offered, especially to the young, was an antidote to the empty gaze of the screen.
In meetings and elsewhere, this Tolstoyan experience of undergoing a personal crisis of meaning, both political and of the soul, seemed deeply shared. Apart from Amin, I’ve met an architect, a film editor, an advertising consultant, an unemployed stock trader, a spattering of lawyers, and people with various other jobs who, after joining OWS, found themselves psychologically unable to go about their lives as before. For weeks last fall, gatherings on the eastern steps of Zuccotti Park had the aura of a revivalist meeting.
This may explain why some members of the clergy are so attracted to Occupy Wall Street. Michael Ellick, the minister at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, said that when he first visited Zuccotti Park he was reminded of his years at a monastery. “When people enter a monastery, they don’t know why they’ve come,” said Ellick. “They are there to find out why they are there, why they were compelled to leave the other world. You figure it out together, you take a mike check, and this is how faith comes to you.” He opened the doors of his church to the demonstrators. John Merz, an Episcopal priest at Ascension Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, likened Occupy Wall Street to early Christianity, which was “born as a public movement, in public space, a series of spontaneous gatherings.”
In an effort to regain a public space of dissent, activists, with the support of like-minded members of the clergy who had organized themselves into a group called “Occupy Faith,” planned in December to set up camp in a vacant lot on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. The lot was owned by Trinity Church, the historic Episcopal church located a block south of Zuccotti Park and, as it happens, one of the largest landowners in New York City. The church had lent a cautious measure of support to the occupiers when they were camped in Zuccotti Park, giving them the use of a community center Trinity owns and other much-needed amenities. But it was refusing them access to the Canal Street lot.
Organizers tried to pressure Trinity’s rector, Jim Cooper, into changing his mind. Desmond Tutu, writing from South Africa, and acknowledging the “consistent” support Trinity gave to him and the anti-apartheid movement,4 urged the church to “rearrange” its affairs “for justice sake.” He added, “Just as history watched as South Africa was reborn in promise and fairness so it is watching you now.” (Later, Tutu sent another message, making if clear that he was not endorsing the breaking of laws.) Protesters also managed to gain support from members of the local community board, which was reviewing rezoning approval for a residential tower Trinity was hoping to build on the lot. One board member implied that he would use the rezoning review against Trinity.
The pressure didn’t work. On December 17 a few hundred protesters showed up at the Canal Street site as planned, carrying sleeping bags to prepare to spend the night. A regiment of policemen tightly hemmed them in, dogging them as they set out on futile circular marches through the neighborhood. Forty or fifty people, including a retired bishop, climbed a ladder over the fence and into the lot and were duly arrested.
Afterward, there was a feeling of disappointment and false cheer as protesters milled about in the cold. Trinity Church seemed a misguided target, no matter its wealth. “Something has to happen, whether we occupy or not,” said a protester. Much of the remaining group headed to Jim Cooper’s apartment building, a few blocks away. “He won’t let us in his lot, we’ll see how he feels when we’re in front of his house.” Cooper gave no sign of any reaction.
I ran into Jeremy, the librarian from North Dakota, who wondered whether “getting locked up all the time really helps us.” He was instead looking forward to working on the theoretical aspects of the movement. Something new was being created, he believed, something enduring. Things would pick up again in the spring; now was a time to strategize, to take stock.
Some of the Occupy Wall Street members told me that they hope to emulate the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was able to pose a clear moral question. In 1961, only 28 percent of Americans approved of sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom buses as a way to end segregation. Over the next seven years and more, because of the civil rights movement, Americans had to ask themselves whether official, overt racism could be tolerated.
If Occupy Wall Street is to become the embodiment of public conscience, it will have to pose similar questions that defy moral evasiveness and make people urgently ask, for example, what degree of inequality and what forms of corporate influence on government will be tolerated. The problem for protesters is that while severely limiting corporate power in government is a worthy goal, it’s morally abstract, with little visceral impact. And economic justice is a vague and sweeping term that invites both personal grievances and broad interpretation. Economic equality and economic justice can reasonably be seen as two different matters.
Still, what seemed business as usual only four months ago no longer is so. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that for the first time more people under the age of thirty view socialism positively than view capitalism positively—49 to 46 percent—although what they meant by socialism was not clearly defined. It seems possible that the wars and recessions of the past decade have given rise to a politicized generation that will have, over the coming years, a lasting effect on the country. The months leading up to the 2012 presidential election this fall will most likely tell us more about what that effect will be. So far, Occupy Wall Street has proven to be a resourceful and unpredictable movement. But there’s no assurance of what form the uprisings many now hope for will take, or even if they will happen at all.
—January 12, 2012
3 See Lessig, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (Twelve, 2011). ↩
4 Trinity has a history of giving financial support to a variety of Anglican churches and causes in Africa. See www.trinitywallstreet.org/action/grants/approved. ↩