A reader writes:
Over the last few days you’ve been posting a fair number of emails from people with opinions about the Occupy Wall Street protests, but nothing, so far as I can tell, from anyone who has been spending actual time there. I’m not any kind of authority, but I’ve been going down to Zucotti Park on lunch breaks and after work and during the evenings, whenever I can, and I wanted to respond to your reader who thinks the whole thing is a culture-jamming prank orchestrated by AdBusters.
First: yes, the idea came from AdBusters, but nobody who had actually been to Zucotti Park could ever think that AdBusters is orchestrating anything. This protest is being run by the people who are there. Its concerns emerge organically from those who participate at its general assembly, and as the protest has grown and grown—remember your reader who said this would all be forgotten in two weeks?—they’ve been taking more advice and assistance from experienced organizers. AdBusters hasn’t put its name on anything: no signs, no “brought to you by” messages, no nothing. If a reader wants to be enraged by a particular magazine, that’s his or her choice, but just because you’ve seen a few issues of a magazine doesn’t mean you get to pretend like you know what’s going on in lower Manhattan.
Second: the idea that nobody knows that these people are protesting about is willfully ignorant. The protesters are there because they believe that the financial institutions that comprise “Wall Street” exercise too much power in the country’s political and social life. That’s it. That’s what the message is. The reason this seems so obvious is because it is so obvious. “But where are their proposals?” I have heard people complain. “Do they want to put a tax on financial transactions, or do they just want to raise the income tax for wealthy people?” Are you kidding? Technocrats don’t make for good activists. Technocrats should be in Congress, or working at think tanks, or helping Congressmen to craft policy. Protests should do three things: they should express anger, through marches and targeted civil disobedience, at a particular political or social situation. They should give people the opportunity to see that other people, even people different from themselves, share that anger. And they should provide a vision of how life would be better if the world were different. Occupy Wall Street is doing all three of those things.
Finally: I’ve heard a lot of people complain that those currently occupying Zucotti Park are “white college kids” with “dreadlocks” or “safety pins through their noses,” and that this is alienating or disgusting to people who wear button-down shirts and work full-time jobs. Since I’m someone who wears button-down shirts and works a full-time job, this unease is something I’m familiar with. But you know what? You don’t pick protests like you pick restaurants or nightclubs. Nobody wants to read your Yelp review of Occupy Wall Street. The great thing about protest activism is that it becomes meaningful once you stop thinking of yourself as a consumer and start thinking of yourself as a participating citizen. So if you have a problem with all of the ripped jeans and Birkenstocks that you’ve been seeing wandering around Zucotti Park, get your buttoned-down ass on a train or subway, and go there yourself, and start talking to people. Invite your buttoned-down friends. You’ll find, first of all, that the protest begins to look more like something you’re comfortable with. And you’ll find, also, that those people who seem so foreign or naïve to you on television actually want the same things that you want, and that it’s easier to get those things once you get over yourself and start making noise about it.