Inclusion and the Soul of Occupy Wall Street

By Cailean MacLean

© Daniel Massey
All is not well in the global Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. This week authorities moved to shut down the Occupy Vancouver tent city following a death from a suspected heroin overdose, the second in three days. Occupy Oakland, so far the most beset by police repression, has seen violence within its ranks by a masked “black bloc”, quick to attack both authority figures and fellow protestors trying to defend public and private property.

While the OWS has seen amazing examples of camaraderie, mutual support, and democratic management, there have been growing reports about about a darkening atmosphere in various camps, with claims of sexual assault, drug abuse, and theft. Part of this is no doubt due to the inherent issue of large groups of protestors providing food and accommodation in a public area. In part, however, the rise in provocateurs and anti-social individuals may have been helped by the authorities themselves. In New York, the spiritual home of the OWS movement, police have allegedly been actively rounding up and transporting the homeless and mentally ill to Zuccotti park both as an alleged attempt to put pressure on the resources of the occupiers as well as to intimidate and vilify the movement itself.
This development has demonstrated a vulnerability and paradox at the heart of OWS. Ultimately the OWS movement straddles two conflicting principles. First and foremost the movement has advertised and championed its inclusivity. It claims to represent the 99% of the world’s population economically disadvantaged and brutalized by a small economic elite. To this end the OWS has promoted consensus politics in both camp management and in their formulating of public demands. The exclusion of others from their movement or their camps, especially due to personal issues made worse by the current economic system (untreated mental illness, drug addition, alcoholism, homelessness, and political radicalization), has been avoided due to this policy of openness and acceptance. It is this inclusiveness which has given credence to their self-proclaimed 99% mantle.

On the other hand, protesting and “occupying” must be looked at for what they are: a means to an end rather than an end in itself. OWS is merely theatre if it is not able to transform its concerns and demands into tangible changes, whether in the form of laws and regulations regarding economic justice or as a sea-change in the public understanding of the global and American economic system. Merely saying that OWS represents the 99% does not make it so. The people in the camps are ultimately only an activist few. While sympathy and support for the ideals of the movement run fairly high, recent polls showing 54% holding a favourable view with only 23% expressing a negative view, this support is variable and subject to the ongoing public perception of those in the field.

As in any political campaign, especially one which seeks to harness the perception of the majority of the Western voting population, being able to portray oneself as representative of the economic aspirations of the middle class is central. In North America, where self-identified class distinctions have historically been weaker than their European counterparts, the vast majority of the population regardless of their financial status regard themselves as part of an amorphous “middle class”. With this has come an aversion towards mass disorder as well as activities and individuals who threaten this stable way of life. This does not mean that the “middle class” is inherently hostile towards OWS as polls and opinions have shown. The shock to stability seen by the ongoing financial crisis in large part caused by the machinations of Wall Street has proven this “1%” to be an object of concern. Nevertheless, should OWS be seen as a ‘lawless’, ‘drug-addicted’ and homeless ‘mob’, it is unlikely that the momentum and spirit of the movement can tap into the raw political power and pressure that the large, if financially besieged middle can provide. Those seeking social change would be tarred with support for lawlessness and political violence while those supporting the status quo will emphasize their championing of law, order, and stability. This false dichotomy can and will be used to discredit the OWS, and indeed already has by certain commentators in the US.

Many of the unofficial leaders of OWS have shown a keen awareness of this as well as media savvy. In late September as the media finally turned its eyes on the movement it reacted accordingly; Patrick Brenner, an unofficial organizer of the Zuccotti camp shaved off his punk hairstyle following a media report of OWS as a “motley crew of anarchists, hippies and delinquents.” The question remains as to how OWS will continue to manage its message and its membership following these recent setbacks.

This balancing act is an important one. Not since the 60s and 70s has there been such an organic, popular movement attempting to challenge an economic and political system weighted so heavily against the average citizen. To have it be dismissed by the majority because of the actions of a violent, criminal, or anti-social few would be a tragic missed opportunity. A consensus movement, while ideal in theory, can quickly see power devolve towards the loudest and most likely to bully others. OWS needs to recognize that its long term goals and the anti-social actions of some individuals sharing the OWS space are not necessarily compatible. There is nothing wrong with asking people in the movement to act in ways that support it rather then hold it back and requesting that they leave, should they fail to abide by community standards. OWS encampments have a duty to protect their members, their movement, and their message by recognizing that inclusivity requires sacrifices from all parties.

About the Author:

Cailean MacLean is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. He recently graduated from the University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies with an LL.M. in International Law and Relations.

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