The confusion on the Left about the goals and methods of OWS seems endless. Even those of us who are sympathetic and would like to understand are quick to pigeonhole the movement into our narrow understanding of politics (and to point out that, by those standards, they're doing it all wrong). We on the Left are continually attempting to understand their movement in familiar terms and, when their actions and methods are not familiar, we're dismissive. The result is, we're really missing the point - they're telling us that we can live in a better world. (And I know there are numerous people who close down the moment they hear such lofty idealism, but if the OWS movement has been more effective than you initially thought they could be, perhaps your narrowness of vision is the problem).
A persistent complaint from the Left is that the protesters' methods are ineffective. However, this is clearly false: The OWS movement is spreading like wildfire and is garnering support from unions and community organizations at an impressive pace. All I can say to this complaint is: If only the Democratic Party were this "ineffective."
And I categorically reject the notion that the OWS movement was hopelessly ineffective, but now that unions have joined, maybe they will be. Be very clear: The OWS movement isn't effective because unions have joined; unions have joined because the OWS movement is effective. Bear in mind that before the unions supported the OWS movement, the OWS protesters showed up to support the postal workers union. Kevin Gosztola reported that when the OWS protesters arrived, a large cheer rang out. For me, the postal workers' cheering was heart warming, but also a little heartbreaking because it's a painful reminder of how little support our working class usually gets. Unions have been thrown under the bus for so long - how could they not support this movement? And they are. In droves.
Can anyone honestly argue, with a straight face, that "We Are the 99%" is an ineffective message? It's astonishing to hear such criticism from a group whose rallying cry is: "We're better than Republicans." At this point, Democratic politicians rub our noses in our lack of options and basically tell us we have no choice but to vote for them, no matter how thoroughly they sell us out and no matter how depraved and corrupt they become. The OWS movement is telling us and, more importantly, showing us that this is a lie.
As Occupy Wall Street protester J.A. Meyerson explains:
The occupation of Wall Street is a two-headed monster: One the one hand, it's a political statement and a protest; and, on the other hand, it's a community unto itself.
We, on the Left, focus on the political protest aspect of the movement (being sure to point out how these well-meaning, ragtag kids are doing it wrong). But when it comes to their creation of a "community unto itself," we're at a loss. And because we don't understand it, our reaction is either to ignore that part or to actively deride it (this is the silly, hippie nonsense). But the two-heaaded monster metaphor implies this aspect is a significant part of the movement. And it's important for several reasons: it builds camaraderie; it allows for extended occupation; and also, it shows us what is possible. Part of the idea of the "community unto itself" is to reflect the type of society they'd like to live in. And indeed, it seems that everyone who encounters the OWS movement is inspired:
I have spent the last two days at the Occupy Wall Street gathering. It was a beautiful display of peaceful action: so much kindness and gentleness in the camp, so much belief in our world and democracy.... It is a thing of beauty to see so many people in love with the ideal of democracy, so alive with its promise, so committed to its continuity in the face of crony capitalism and corporate rule. ~ Mark Ruffalo
The overwhelming tone was spirited, determined, and thoroughly inspiring. As I’ve said before, who knows where this is going, but right now it’s exciting.... [W]ith the original OWS encampment persisting, and cities across the country joining in, I thought of Wallace Stevens’ line about searching “a possible for its possibleness.” ~ Doug Henwood
I was personally moved by this statement, made at an early Occupy Boston meeting:
When I heard this, when I heard her say everyone was welcome and, very specifically, that the homeless were welcome, I realized something: In small, growing clusters throughout the country and, indeed, around the world, these words are no longer an embarrassing farce:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Right now - because of this ragtag group of kids - these words are not just a shameful reminder of our hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy. The OWS movement is indeed a "community unto itself" that is showing us that it's possible to live up to our highest ideals. We are not fated to live in a cruel and ruthless society; decency and fairness are indeed possible:
The 99% of us have paid a dear price so that 1% could become the wealthiest people in the world.... We live with great injustices in the land of justice. We live with great lawlessness in the land of the law.
It's time to check ourselves, to see if we still have that small part that believes in the values that America promises. Do we still have a shred of our decency intact in the face of debasement? If you do, then now is the time to give that forgotten part a voice. That is what this movement is ultimately about: giving voice to decency and fairness.
Philosophers have long noted that some things - indeed the most important things - transcend language. They can be experienced, but never completely expressed. If you think the OWS movement is ineffective, if you feel they must have concrete demands, if you're dismissing them based on their attire, you're missing the point. I cannot claim a full understanding of the movement myself (I am too new to direct action), but what I do know is that the OWS movement is more than just a political protest. Accordingly, we must not only listen to what they're saying, but also pay close attention to the communities they're creating.
Cross-posted at Plutocracy Files.