The most interesting thing about Occupy Wall Street is that it’s not a protest.
There are protest elements. There are signs, and a lot of flyers. Some people are shouting slogans sometimes. There are also cops and barricades and a sense of tension. A protest is a lot of people acting in unison to externalize one idea that’s usually oppositional. Protests are about megaphones, slogans and chanting—about declaring something in at least vague unison. That’s just not what’s happening at Zuccotti Park.
Outreach table at Occupy Wall Street.
There’s a kitchen, and a lending library and a press corps and a first aid station and a sanitation team, and while it’s obvious to anyone with a sense of smell that plenty of people have been living in the park for weeks, the levels of actual protesting behaviors are pretty low. What predominates is this intense murmur of transactions. People are definitely expressing themselves. But more people are negotiating sign materials, information, books, opinions, food, how disparate problems and points of view fit together, the needs of the police, group dynamics and a lot of people with cameras and notepads.
Lending Library at Occupy Wall Street.
Because of this transactional quality, Occupy Wall Street is not so much a protest as it is a very tiny city where the food and books are free, there’s no such thing as anonymity and the point is to find meaning. And the thing that gives Occupy Wall Street this beautiful civic-life-as-existential-exercise quality is the thing that irritated me most about the idea of it. It’s the fact that there is no one message that people are rallying around. I was so certain that putting the Ron Paul People and the African American guy in his twenties with the sign about gun violence and the left’s answer to the tea party and the people who care about debt and the Ecuadorean immigrants and the Obama supporters and the people who are in debt themselves and the people who legitimately want banks to reform and the people who hate capitalism and the feminists and the guy who wants Andrew Jackson off the $20 and the Obama-haters and the upstanding people who are just there to say that they aren’t dirty or jobless and that they still believe in this…
…I assumed that throwing all these people together in a park that’s shaped like a seventies-style conversation pit would make as much sense as dumping all the ingredients in your kitchen into a casserole dish. But what happens is the whole shape of a protest gets turned inside out in a particularly satisfying way.
Today I wound up walking up to these two Smith graduates because they had signs that said “talk to me,” and I wanted to talk. So I hung out with them for a couple of hours, mostly conversing with people who didn’t agree with Occupy Wall Street. We chatted with this very nice couple from Kentucky for awhile about a lot of different political issues and about the nature of the protest. By the end of the conversation I was thanking them because it had been just forever since I had gotten into a real dialogue about politics with someone I didn’t already agree with—that our culture just isn’t organized around that right now. They agreed that it is refreshing to have respectful and lively debate, and they thanked us, and we all parted ways, knowing that disagreements don’t have to be as deep or as wide as either Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity makes them out to be.
If you have a Twitter feed or a Facebook page or a television, you already know that Occupy Wall Street is spreading and is a significant cultural event. If the ultimate meaning of Occupy Wall Street lies in its ability to engulf every passerby, news feed and city, and if it accomplishes this meaning by accepting every single sign and preferring transactions over broadcasts, then its foil
(because every great cultural product requires a foil to make it dimensional)
is the core of anarchists that are radical and intense enough to actually occupy the park for weeks on end with no one goal in mind. They have the energy and the commitment to physically stay. They created the anarchic structure that allows everyone in. And they are this wellspring of endless sensationalized news stories that sow the irritainment, disgust, horror and fear that dragged many of the people I spoke to today to the park. Where they could see with their eyes that there’s room for them and pick up a piece of cardboard and a marker, or start a conversation.
I retract every single statement I ever made about Occupy Wall Street being unorganized. It’s self-organized. It’s complex. It makes complete sense and it’s not, at this point anyway, the product of any one person’s vision. This emergent structure and the complexity it yields is worth watching. And the occupation’s potential to change the conversation has never been more urgently needed.