The Problem With Occupy Wall Street
I went to the Occupy D.C. protests expecting to find enormous meaning.
Just that afternoon, I had received my first student-loan bill from Sallie Mae -- a slim, sinister white envelope that promised to strain my paycheck for the next 120 months. My roommate and I stood in the kitchen of our little basement apartment, comparing interest rates and repayment programs and wondering if this spelled the end of our modest social lives. We had a similar conversation when we got our first paychecks and saw the chunk that disappeared to taxes. And we had commiserated when we looked at apartments -- dozens and dozens of apartments -- and, at 22 years old, never seemed to have enough credit to sign a lease.
These, of course, are relatively small concerns. Half our friends don’t even have jobs. Of the employed half, many work at cafes, bars or pawn shops. Their parents pay their rent. On Gchat and by phone, we talk about the slow progress of their searches: the endless applications, the dead-end interviews, the infinite, overwhelming frustration. Sometimes I feel guilty for having a job.
But while signs on the perimeter of D.C.’s McPherson Square seemed to indicate that the Occupy protesters share my fears and concerns, I couldn’t figure out exactly what they want. The diffuse crowd of 150 occupiers represented a wide range of ideologies and political parties: socialists, libertarians, Tea Partiers, people who do not or cannot vote. A 25-year-old guy on a fixed-gear bike told me he didn’t go to college because he hated banks too much to take out a loan. (“Where’s your money?” I asked. “A shoebox,” he fired back.) A hyper college kid named Anthony saw me taking notes and offered to find me an authority to speak to.
“Just one thing,” he said. “Don’t write about how disorganized this is.”
But as I told Anthony then, and still believe now, disorganization seems like the hallmark of the Occupy movement. There exist no spokespeople, no leaders or organizers, to articulate the movement’s direction. In D.C., as in other parts of the country, occupiers make decisions entirely by consensus. One person (a "facilitator," never an “organizer") stands up and addresses the crowd, who make hand gestures to indicate approval or dissent. As a result, everyone has a literal hand in the process -- and the process is excruciatingly long.
To protesters, this faux-Athenian model sounds fairer and more representative than a representative system. But while consensus may work for 50 people sleeping in a park, there are a few key logistical differences between a modern social movement and a tribal village. Let’s imagine that the Occupy movement decides to draft an actual set of policies or goals. Will they convene protesters from all participating cities to weigh in on the process? Will they crowdsource it online? (Is that fair to the tens of millions of people in the 99% who can’t afford to access the Internet?)
Then again, the lack of specificity -- and the contradictory motives -- also serve as markers of the movement. Note the slogans that occupiers unite behind: “We are the 99 percent.” “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” They share a common frustration and the obvious, uncontroversial belief that the American financial system does not work for everyone. Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney called it a “generic liberal” agenda, a set of beliefs so vague that anyone can get behind them. Gregory Djerejian, writing on TheAtlantic.com, lauded the movement for its lack of concrete demands, which “might risk ideologically ring-fencing them.” But in the absence of both demands and political ideology, Occupy becomes a loose conglomeration of unlike-minded people, more a bandwagon than a unified movement.
In some respects, of course, that’s fine. If Occupy wants to be a “space of radical imagination,” in the words of one liberal blogger, where people can vent their collective frustration and disappointment, than it already succeeded.
But when I went to McPherson Square, I hoped to find a group of united, articulate, organized people who could actually address my student debt and the unemployment rate that keeps my friends from finding work. I found nothing of the sort. Without effective leadership and concrete demands, the Occupy movement -- at least in D.C. -- looks less egalitarian and more anarchic. On Twitter, the only coherent and oft-repeated sentiment is the need and desire for more pizza donations. In the square, people hold signs, some of them more intelligible than others, and chant about banks and big business and structural inequality. As much as I might sympathize with them, I can't get past the sense of futility.
“So would you describe the mood here as more socialist or libertarian?” I ask the petite, blue-eyed authority Anthony procured. “Do the occupiers want more government or less?”
"We want both," she says.
I pause. We just finished marching and it’s still hot outside, so maybe I misheard.
“Sorry,” I say. “I don’t get how that’s possible.”
"Well, it's not possible under the current system," she explains, patiently. "But we're interested in a new system where that would be possible. We want none of the bad and all of the good, basically."
“Oh. I see.” I don’t know what to say. “Well, that makes sense, I guess.”
And as much as the sentiment does make sense -- because we all want “all of the good,” don’t we? -- it doesn’t make sense at all.