OCTOBER 21, 2011
Illustration: © Erika Rothenberg 911 World Domination (detail)
WHO COULD HAVE ENVISIONED Occupy Wall Street and its sudden wildflower-like profusion in cities large and small?
John Carpenter could have, and did. Almost a quarter of a century ago (1988), the master of date-night terror (Halloween, The Thing), wrote and directed They Live, depicting the Age of Reagan as a catastrophic alien invasion. In one of the film’s brilliant early scenes, a huge third-world shantytown is reflected across the Hollywood Freeway in the sinister mirror-glass of Bunker Hill’s corporate skyscrapers.
They Live remains Carpenter’s subversive tour de force. Few who’ve seen it could forget his portrayal of billionaire bankers and evil mediacrats and their zombie-distant rule over a pulverized American working class living in tents on a rubble-strewn hillside and begging for jobs. From this negative equality of homelessness and despair, and thanks to the magic dark glasses found by the enigmatic Nada (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), the proletariat finally achieves interracial unity, sees through the subliminal deceptions of capitalism, and gets angry.
Yes, I know, I’m reading ahead. The Occupy the World movement is still looking for its magic glasses (program, demands, strategy, and so on) and its anger remains on Gandhian low heat. But, as Carpenter foresaw, force enough Americans out of their homes and/or careers (or at least torment tens of millions with the possibility) and something new and huge will begin to slouch towards Goldman Sachs. And unlike the “Tea Party,” so far it has no puppet strings.
In 1965, when I was just eighteen and on the national staff of Students for a Democratic Society, I planned a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank, for its key role in financing South Africa after the massacre of peaceful demonstrators, for being “a partner in Apartheid.” It was the first protest on Wall Street in a generation and 41 people were hauled away by the NYPD.
One of the most important facts about the current uprising is simply that it has occupied the street and created an existential identification with the homeless. (Though, frankly, my generation, trained in the civil rights movement, would have thought first of sitting inside the buildings and waiting for the police to drag and club us out the door; today, the cops prefer pepper spray and “pain compliance techniques.”) I think taking over the skyscrapers is a wonderful idea, but for a later stage in the struggle. The genius of Occupy Wall Street, for now, is that it has temporarily liberated some of the most expensive real estate in the world and turned a privatized square into a magnetic public space and catalyst for protest.
Our sit-in 46 years ago was a guerrilla raid; this is Wall Street under siege by the Lilliputians. It’s also the triumph of the supposedly archaic principle of face-to-face, dialogic organizing. Social media is important, sure, but not omnipotent. Activist self-organization — the crystallization of political will from free discussion — still thrives best in actual urban fora. Put another way, most of our internet conversations are preaching to the choir; even the mega-sites like MoveOn.org are tuned to the channel of the already converted, or at least their probable demographic.
The occupations likewise are lightning rods, first and above all, for the scorned, alienated ranks of progressive Democrats, but they also appear to be breaking down generational barriers, providing the common ground, for instance, for imperiled, middle-aged school teachers to compare notes with young, pauperized college grads.
More radically, the encampments have become symbolic sites for healing the divisions within the New Deal coalition in place since the Nixon years. As Jon Wiener observed on his consistently smart blog at www.TheNation.com: “hard hats and hippies — together at last.”
Indeed. Who could not be moved when AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who had brought his coalminers to Wall Street in 1989 during their bitter but ultimately successful strike against Pittston Coal Company, called upon his broad-shouldered women and men to “stand guard” over Zucotta Park in the face of an imminent attack by the NYPD?
It’s true that old radicals like me are quick to declare each new baby the messiah, but this Occupy Wall Street child has the rainbow sign. I believe that we’re seeing the rebirth of the quality that so markedly defined the migrants and strikers of the Great Depression, of my parents’ generation: a broad, spontaneous compassion and solidarity based on a dangerously egalitarian ethic. It says, Stop and give a hitch-hiking family a ride. Never cross a picket line, even when you can’t pay the rent. Share your last cigarette with a stranger. Steal milk when your kids have none and then give half to the little kids next door — what my own mother did repeatedly in 1936. Listen carefully to the profoundly quiet people who have lost everything but their dignity. Cultivate the generosity of the “we.”
What I mean to say, I suppose, is that I’m most impressed by folks who have rallied to defend the occupations despite significant differences in age, in social class and race. But equally, I adore the gutsy kids who are ready to face the coming winter on freezing streets, just like their homeless sisters and brothers.
Back to strategy, though: what’s the next link in the chain (in Lenin’s sense) that needs to be grasped? How imperative is it for the wildflowers to hold a convention, adopt programmatic demands, and thereby put themselves up for bid on the auction block of the 2012 elections? Obama and the Democrats will desperately need their energy and authenticity. But the occupationistas are unlikely to put themselves or their extraordinary self-organizing process up for sale.
Personally I lean toward the anarchist position and its obvious imperatives.
First, expose the pain of the 99 percent; put Wall Street on trial. Bring Harrisburg, Loredo, Riverside, Camden, Flint, Gallup, and Holly Springs to downtown New York. Confront the predators with their victimsa national tribunal on economic mass murder.
Second, continue to democratize and productively occupy public space (i.e. reclaim the Commons). The veteran Bronx activist-historian Mark Naison has proposed a bold plan for converting the derelict and abandoned spaces of New York into survival resources (gardens, campsites, playgrounds) for the unsheltered and unemployed. The Occupy protestors across the country now know what it’s like to be homeless and banned from sleeping in parks or under a tent. All the more reason to break the locks and scale the fences that separate unused space from urgent human needs.
Third, keep our eyes on the real prize. The great issue is not raising taxes on the rich or achieving a better regulation of banks. It’s economic democracy: the right of ordinary people to make macro-decisions about social investment, interest rates, capital flows, job creation, and global warming. If the debate isn’t about economic power, it’s irrelevant.
Fourth, the movement must survive the winter in order to fight the power in the next spring. It’s cold on the street in January. Bloomberg and every other mayor and local ruler is counting on a hard winter to deplete the protests. It is thus all-important to reinforce the occupations over the long Christmas break. Put on your overcoats.
Finally, we must calm down — the itinerary of the current protest is totally unpredictable. But if one erects a lightning rod, we shouldn’t be surprised if lightning eventually strikes.
Bankers, recently interviewed in the New York Times, claim to find the Occupy protests little more than a nuisance arising from an unsophisticated understanding of the financial sector. They should be more careful. Indeed, they should probably quake before the image of the tumbrel.
Since 1987, African Americans have lost more than half of their net worth; Latinos, an incredible two-thirds. Five-and-a-half million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United Sates since 2000, more than 42,000 factories closed, and an entire generation of college graduates now face the highest rate of downward mobility in American history.
Wreck the American dream and the common people will put on you some serious hurt. Or as Nada explains to his unwary assailants in Carpenter’s great film: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…. and I’m all out of bubblegum.”