I woke up this morning to a call from my cousin Hannah. She’s helping to organize an Occupy Worcester movement, and wanted to know if I could translate their flier into Arabic for her. (No problem!) I told her it was exciting to see people out in the streets, even if I wasn’t sure what they were protesting for, exactly. “I don’t think it’s as important what they’re for,” she said, “as that they’re out there practicing direct democracy.”
Perhaps that’s why I dragged my feet this morning. The very idea of protesting for the sake of having a protest seemed so hollow to me, especially after my experiences of the last year with the Egyptian revolution. Before the April 6 and Khaled Said youth movements ever stepped out into the streets of Cairo, they had a definite plan of what they wanted and how they would get it. They studied with Velvet Revolutionary Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and spent months deciding on their demands, their tactics, their slogans, even what they would chant in the streets was scripted in advance.
So when I got down to Zuccotti Park this afternoon, I was not impressed. After standing on Tahrir Square, shoulder to shoulder with several million Egyptians chanting “The regime must fall” and “Christian and Muslim, hand in hand,” I guess my standards are unreasonably high. For me, though, the few hundred hippies, college students and veterans I saw with their cardboard boxes and dreadlocks were not as impressive as they’d been made out to be on the news.
If you add up all the protestors across the country, from Boston and Worcester to Oakland and San Fransisco, you probably have a substantial number. There’s credence, too, to the stories I’ve heard on NPR comparing the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Tea Party. They’re probably comparable in size and coherence given the number of months they’ve been protesting … it’s just that Occupy Wall Street made it into the national headlines within weeks of starting, and the Tea Party took months to garner national attention.
But who do they represent? Who are the 99%? I’ve spoken to a number of activists who work with impoverished communities of color in New York City and elsewhere, and they all voice the same frustration: The people of color who are really suffering from the failing economy are not able to “occupy Wall Street,” can hardly even follow it on the news, because they’re working three part-time, under-the-table jobs just to cobble together a meal every day. The people who are in Zuccotti Park may be unemployed, underemployed or frustrated with their circumstances, but they come from circumstances that allow them the luxury of coming to Zuccotti Park. This isn’t Egypt, where the entire economy screeched to a halt because even the bodega owners and French fry friers were leaving their jobs to rally on Tahrir Square.
I am pleased to see the unions rallying to the cry. I saw striking Verizon workers in Zuccotti Park, and while they are fortunate to have the luxury to even be on strike, the issues that they’re striking for are so similar to the Occupy Wall Street complaints that they have real legitimacy in my eyes. I was delighted that the United Federation of Teachers marched with Occupy Wall Street, because so many of our students and their parents are among the truly disenfranchised … but here’s my beef with them: Why would the UFT march on a Tuesday morning? I would have gladly marched with them, but … I had to be at school, teaching!
So, yes, Hannah, it’s important to practice direct democracy. And yes, to that guy at Occupy Boston who had the sign reading, “It’s not that we’re disorganized, it’s just that America has so many problems!” But if this movement is going to have a real impact, it needs an agenda, a message, a unifying purpose. Within 3 days of occupying Tahrir Square, the Egyptian protestors had a list of 11 core demands, despite being a leaderless movement. That doesn’t mean that Egyptians only have 11 complaints about the way Mubarak and the National Democratic Party ran their country into the ground … it just means they had a platform for their first steps. Where are Occupy Wall Street’s core demands?