Social Mobilization in the Big Apple

After making it to JFK airport after 14 hours and a rerouting to Bangor Maine owing to the early snow stormon Friday afternoon, my business parter from Cyberalpha and I had a great day walking downtown to observe and interview people from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests. After an incredible Jewish breakfast at Sarges Deli in Midtown Manhattan, we walked down Broadway to the World Trade Center site and then on to Liberty Square to see the occupation.

I had seen a lot of coverage of the protest via the UK media (and of the occupy London movement), which put a particular spin on the events here, but talking to the individuals involved and walking around the site taking in all the messages, slogans, speeches and ephemera changed my perceptions.

My initial view was that the movement was fairly inchoate and disparate, and there are elements of spontaneity, incoherence and opportunism about OWS (which are present in any form of collective action of this sort), but as I talked to the individuals involved I got a good sense of the level of organisation and commitment to a grassroots and direct form of democracy that I found both refreshing and fascinating.

I met a guy with an MBA who works in financial services during the week and protests during the weekend, committed organisers who have camped out at the site, an individual who claimed to have been poisoned by Johnson & Johnson, a managing director of a photo design company who dashes between his studio and the protests and many others from mixed backgrounds and motivations. Many races and ethnic groups are represented, as are different generations, social classes, and people with different levels of education.

Yet across the heterogeneity of the group, there is a shared frustration at the loopholes that benefit large corporations, the absence of mechanisms for redress against an oligopoly of large corporations, the disparity in incomes (neatly summarised by the 1% versus %99 framing of the problem), and the failure of national politicians to listen to the very people they represent.

The melange of tents, blankets, signs, posters, bike generators, effigies, makeshift library, kitchen, media tent, and table top ‘caacuses’  all looked a bit of a mess when I first arrived, but the small area of Liberty Square is abuzz with activity that is shaping a new democratic discourse that seeks to go ‘viral’ through social media and a network of ‘occupy_<enter a City Name>’ to create a social movement that challenges the current model of representative democracy in the United States.

OWS has a daily briefing for the media, which is scheduled in ways to include those who work. There is a daily General Assembly that is live streamed on the Internet. There is a wonderfully produced The ‘Occupied’ Wall Street Journal. Local businesses allow the protesters to use their toilet facilities and churches have donated supplies, while the occupation becomes more fortified. Local political leaders and activists joined the protest this afternoon in a show of solidarity.

There is a commitment among the activists that despite the impending cold winter, which will limit the movement’s activities, it will return to become ‘America’s Spring’. Indeed, in a classic illustration of Charles Tilly’s notion of ‘repertoire of contention’, the OWS draws its inspiration from the uprising in Egypt and in particular, the occupation of Tahrir Square.

The other observation I made, was the extraordinary number of smart phones, video cameras, tablets and iPads at the event. The democratisation of technology (the topic of our research on this trip to New York City and Washington DC) means that individuals seek a direct form of communication with the wider public and want to avoid the ‘mediated’ nature of the mainstream media.

After an inspiring day, two ironies strike me:

  • The OWS is actually located in Liberty Square (Zucotti Park), about a block away from Wall Street, but today, Wall Street was blocked off with larger numbers of police officers and SWAT vans. Why? The filming of the new Batman movie. One protester quipped, ‘The best way to occupy Wall Street is to pay a few million dollars to the city to make a movie!’
  • I got back to my hotel and while I write this, Donald Trump is on CNN talking to Piers Morgan reinforcing many of the observations that the protesters are making.

Observations of politics at the national level focus on the inability for political leaders of all parties to reach agreements on fundamental problems in the United States, and yet in 44 days of occupation, this movement has developed a remarkable sense of community, hopeful spirit and positive energy of the kind that was praised by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America, and which should inspire all Americans during these most difficult of times.

The spread of the movement to other cities such as Denver Colorado, Portland Oregon and Atlanta Georgia have been met with a heavier police response than in New York City observed today.

The key question this autumn is will the movement gather pace or will we have to wait until the Spring to see the fruits of this emerging social movement in America? The timing will of coincide with the run up to the next Presidential elections, where politicians would be wise to listen to the demands being articulated by this most modern of social movements.

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