How rational are Occupy protests? Are they right?

OccupyWhat began as an open call from Adbusters to show up with a tent grew from dozens to hundreds, to thousands, to tens of thousands spurred on by social media. Far from rejecting the extended sit-in, area businesses plied demonstrators with food and support. Those who could not make it to New York started their own hometown Occupy protests in solidarity, hundreds of them, across the country and around the world.

Occupy Wall Street protests have spread around the world, with a common slogan of “We are the 99%.” But there is a great deal of confusion and misperception about this movement.

In New York City, energy flowed into campaigns against police stop-and-frisk practices and to help victims of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Occupy experience put organisers in touch with community members normally scornful of ‘weirdos’ but resolved to fight corporate power. One experienced organizer, fresh from Occupy in Missouri, went on to help launch the Take Back St. Louis initiative, subtitled “Reclaiming our Tax Dollars for a Sustainable Future.”

The group gathered more than 22,000 signatures of registered voters, more than enough to put on to an April 2014 ballot a measure to “stop the city from giving tax breaks and other incentives to corporations that mine coal, gas and oil, and any corporation doing $1m of business with a mining company”; to “create a sustainable energy plan in the city that would invest public money in and open up land for renewable energy and sustainability initiatives like weatherisation programmes, urban farms and solar arrays”. In other words, to create sustainable jobs – against the retrograde claim that measures to halt global warming are ‘job-killers’.

As for the executives in corner offices and boardrooms around Wall Street and Canary Wharf, in state houses and Washington, are they relieved that the rabble were swept away? Do they believe that partial financial reforms will insulate them against risings to come? Beyond growing attention to public relations (probably a growth centre for future employment), are they mindful, as they make policy, that those who once awoke to fill the streets and parks may awaken again? Do they suspect, late at night, that youngsters in sleeping bags might turn out to be the modern equivalent of peasants with pitchforks?

Where have all the chanters gone; the gospel-minded Christians and the denouncers of ‘banksters’ and tyrants; the homeless and the indebted and unemployed who filled our urban squares in 2011-12, crying out such slogans as “We are the 99 percent” and “The people want the end of the regime”? Where are the leaderless revolutionaries who turned cities around the world upside down?

The simple answer is: they were dispersed. When the sometimes public parks were swept clear of troublemakers, many dispersed into a scatter of left-wing campaigns. Other activists now escort visitors around bare, fenced-off Zuccotti Park near Wall Street. In London, free bus tours with guides in top hats carry the curious around the City and Canary Wharf (“Make your very own ‘credit default swap’ and find out how to create money out of thin air!”).

Political rationality, if not fear, may well make elites more responsive. Rumblings on the Right are not the only noises emanating from Europe. The sparks that set Occupy on fire fell on inflammable tinder, and this is how history goes: one spark, then another, ignites a whole landscape. The Occupy ‘graduates’ hope that their time will come again. They might turn out to be wrong – until, one day, they’re right.

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