Ten days ago I stood on the periphery of a Yom Kippur service with at least a thousand Jewish folks across from Liberty Park, singing the words of the Torah, repeating the stories of persecution, and tying this history of oppression to the current class oppression perpetrated by Wall Street on the 99%. We were gathered in the very site of the major banks of America, including that one. The rabbis who led us in remembrance reminded us of the false oaths Jews had to make to avoid being murdered by the Inquisition, and of the false oaths the U.S. financial leaders have made to uphold the interests of their customers. These customers have been asked to sign documents without reading, have been committed without full disclosures to ballooning mortgages, and too many have been stripped of their livelihoods and homes. Since we had to use the ‘people’s microphone,’ a thousand voices echoed these condemnations of our current system and raised their voices in prayer as suits with smirks walked by, the NYPD maintained a menacing perimeter, and the revolutionary general assembly met across the street.
Occupy Wall Street is the real deal. It is what liberal and progressive and radical philosophers have been asking for—have been writing for years in the hopes of inciting—and yet as it begins, too many are criticizing. ‘The message is cloudy, the tactics are inflammatory, the process gets bogged down in ultra-democracy.’ Certainly there is room for debate on all these topics, yet what is happening here is an actual movement. When an idea catches fire, and the sermon reaches beyond the choir, beyond even the church doors, no one can predict what form it will eventually take. Just a few years ago the idea of gay marriage caught fire, so much so that straight-laced, and straight, small town city clerks risked going to jail to break the heterosexist laws of their office. Supportive crowds handed out flowers to tearful gay couples on city hall steps across the country, and yet here again, the academic left offered little more than critique. It was the wrong demand, the wrong tactic, the wrong goal.
Leftists, theorists, academics such as myself, cannot dictate the terms of a movement when a real one materializes. We cannot decide in advance what the right tactics are, or even what the correct line is, or what will inflame the imagination. The correct tactics and the correct line will be the ones that are effective in mobilizing new political participants, that work to raise the level of organization and consciousness, and that effectively reveals the true nature of the state and of the society we live in. The criteria of success do not rest on achievement of some specific demand, but on the engagement of imagination, enlargement of political participation, and creation of new coalitions. On these grounds, Occupy Wall Street is already a clear success. As Zillah Eisenstein and Chandra Talpade Mohanty wrote in their piece in The Feminist Wire, what has changed is this population’s sense of selfhood in relation to political institutions and the state.
It is the exciting, and alarming, open-endedness of this new occupation tactic that has inspired so much participation and interest. This is not the usual protest march so many of us have gone to, with agreed upon demands, a beginning and end, and an opportunity for civil disobedience, if you plan ahead. The drama of having folks—mostly young—set up sleeping bags in a public park for an unspecified duration, where there is a principled agreement on diversity of tactics, and where an open meeting makes decisions in ‘horizontal’ fashion twice a day, brings the ideas of radical democracy to a new manifestation—living and breathing, making mistakes as well as making incredible things happen, right before our eyes. Few signs are mass-produced here; rather, there is hand lettering on cardboard with a delightful variety of slogans that are pointed, funny and profane. “Jesus was a Marxist.” “Giving head to the man won’t help you get ahead.” “One day everything will be different.” “Be the people.” It’s the dramatic open-endedness of this that has sparked similar events in cities around the country and the world, and it’s the decentralization that has mobilized people to feel that their participation could actually make a difference, so that its worth the trouble to get out of the house for once. We in the U.S. like to think we are so very superior to the communist countries that regularly mobilized show demonstrations that looked very little like real democracy. Yet our democratic practices have been similarly straight-jacketed, choreographed, with limited results known well in advance. Occupy Wall Street has broken open the possibilities.
This past weekend I stood on the front lines at Times Square, trying to gauge the policemen’s expressions for the likelihood of being charged with their horses. Around 7:30 pm the cops started to cordon us in, pushing in the barricades, refusing to let the trapped crowds move out. They had skillfully found a way to segregate protesters from the tourists and the theatre-goers, separating us in a way that would be useful for arrest, or violence. The crowd alternated between angry chants of “This is what a police state looks like” to defusing sing song chants like “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.” An Iraq veteran shouted a stern lecture to the cops to stop advancing on unarmed people, that this was not the democratic country he fought to protect. The cops stayed put, and aggressively took pictures of those taking pictures of them. They shouted “Step back!” and we shouted “You step back!” Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow maintained her position right at the front, a small boned woman with a nervous look but complete determination. Then a white shirted officer came out—the symbol of higher rank—and called the cops to step back. It was Officer Esposito, #2 below Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who made an on the spot decision to allow democracy to continue unheeded, for the moment. The crowd began to chant his name in gratitude. Who says there’s no such thing as free will?
Linda Martín Alcoff
Department of Philosophy
Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center