Free Radicals

This weekend I pretty much devoured the two most recent issues of the New York Review of Books. (Parenthetical notes: upon my ‘retirement’ Wednesday I’m looking forward to not obsessing and reading about the news every day and keeping it to long form only.) One article that stood out was this: “What Future for Occupy Wall Street?” by Michael Greenberg. In the essay Greenberg documents some of the challenges the group faces as spring gets closer:

In October, a ”œDemands Group” did spring up among the protesters. When members of the group went public with a few suggestions, the General Assembly attempted to vote them out of existence and by some accounts succeeded. Today, a version of the group exists with 410 members who, according to the movement’s website, are ”œdeveloping the concept of demands” (italics mine). Instead of debating actual demands, they are asking how a group ”œcan create a process where their wants & needs can be communicated.”

But creating ‘demands’ has proved hard:

When I asked Amin and Katie what Occupy Wall Street’s ultimate goal was, they said, ”œA government accountable to the people, freed up from corporate influence.” It seemed that this pointed to a simple, single demand, something that many in the movement had been seeking since September: a campaign finance law that would ban private contributions and restrict candidates to the use of public money. Several detailed proposals for such a law already existed, including one from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig that, though imperfect, would attack, in Lessig’s words, ”œthe root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first.”3

As I spoke, I could sense the impatience of my listeners. I wasn’t getting the point. Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street’s principles. Katie maintained that Occupy Wall Street didn’t yet have ”œa broad enough base” to make such a demand with any reasonable expectation that it could be met. And Amin said, ”œIt doesn’t matter what particular laws you pass. We’re not about laws.” They saw themselves as a counterculture; and to continue to survive as such they had to remain uncontaminated by the culture they opposed.

Note the highlight: this is very American, almost Jeffersonian in its naive insistence on purity. And this will continue to be a stumbling block for “Occupy.” However, Greenberg does right about the increasing radicalization of some “Occupy Protesters:”

The crackdowns scare away less hard-core supporters. Actions now routinely involve a diminishing group of three hundred to five hundred demonstrators or less. Some activists I spoke with preferred the smaller, more concentrated quality of the actions, partly, I suspect, because it gave them the elevated feeling of being the street fighters, the incorruptible ones, the keepers of what is pure. Skirmishes with police could be seen as proof that they were a bona fide threat to the system.

And this is all for the good: a die-hard core of radicals that take it to the next level are necessary. There will be no change until the activists are seen as a threat to the system. But make no mistake: it’s going to take years, much as the Civil Rights movement of the sixties did. It didn’t happen overnight and it won’t in this case, no matter how much we believe modern technology and communications are increasing the pace of change. These things simply take time.

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

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