Occupy Wall Street and the Importance of Creative Protest

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The Nation

Occupy Wall Street and the Importance of Creative Protest

Perhaps the single biggest factor that helped lead to the Occupy movement’s success in capturing the media and public’s attention has been its creativity. Novel protest strategies have served as OWS’s foundation since its first days. The very idea of occupying, and sleeping in, a park twenty-four hours a day was new and exciting.

Up until Occupy, most protests had become exercises in futility. Protesters would show up with their sad, limp carboard signs, march around for a little while—maybe press would show up, but most likely not—and then everyone would go home. Hardly effective stuff.

Even when the protests were massive, say during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, media had learned to ignore protests as being the hallmark of a bygone era of granola-munching hippies. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the media helped hand protesters loss after loss, perhaps recognizing the fact that protest waged within the perimeters constructed by city officials is completely ineffective.

Demonstrators need a permit to march, and even then must remain on the sidewalk and never disrupt traffic; they need a permit to use a bullhorn, a permit to play music, etc. Protesters, in other words, can protest as long as they never disrupt the normalcy of everyday living, which of course defeats the concept of meaningful protest in the first place.

After a while, all protests began to look the same. Protesters show up, march around, chant X or Y slogan, and if it’s super-exciting, clash with the police and everyone goes to jail. Repeat chorus. It’s no wonder the corporately controlled media were so easily able to write off protest culture as being unimportant or ineffective. The horrible truth was, it had become futile.

That is, of course, until Occupy showed up and refused to play by the city-written rules. No, they wouldn’t be getting permits. No, they wouldn’t be going home at curfew. They would remain in camps as permanent monuments to the injustice and inequality of America’s society. There was no “normal” anymore. There was only what Occupy chose to do, and to not do.

Beyond the creativity of the camps themselves with their libraries, clinics, food tents, media centers and very own newspapers, Occupy chapters are full of young protesters who are extremely savvy to what captures the media’s attention.

Hero Vincent, a young man who is one of the more well-known Occupy protesters and who has been arrested four times since the beginning of the occupation, one day casually remarked, “We need a bat signal. The 99%.”

And that idea came to fruition as thousands of protesters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge Friday. (photo by @OccupyJudaism)

Business Insider reports that a single mother of three named Denise Vega volunteered her apartment in a subsidized housing building across the way to set up the projector. When Occupy tried to pay her for the use of her apartment, she refused the money. “This is for the people,” she said.

From Denise’s windowsill, the projector shone the massive “99%” image across the side of the Verizon building. Not only was the image perfect media bait, it served as a profound statement. Verizon, famous for tax dodging and mistreating union members, has been an Occupy target for a long time. Here was the protesters’ chance to not only defiantly march by an archetype of corporate greed but also physically leave a mark, albeit temporary, on Verizon’s face.

The symbolic moment: the candlelight march, the projector’s alternating messages, including, “We are winning,” every element expressed awesome power. You could see it in the faces of the marchers that they had never experienced a profoundly empowering feeling like this before.

And it wasn’t just happening in New York. It was happening everywhere. The projector’s shutter closed and reopened, presenting a new message, “Occupy Earth.”

The Occupy protesters talk about Tahrir and Egypt’s youth not like they’re some foreign, abstract concept, but rather comrades in a common struggle. They express genuine love and solidarity for people who live 5,000 miles away from them, whom they’ll never meet, but with whom they recognize they have more in common with than Bank of America’s CEO.

Perhaps one of the eeriest and most powerful recent Occupy moments occurred when UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi left a press conference in which she was responding to the horrible images and video of UC Davis police officer Lt. John Pike nonchalantly pepper-spraying peaceful protesters.

Students must have been overwhelmingly tempted to shout at the chancellor, or chant “shame,” but such scenes have unfolded a thousand times before, and would have run the risk of being drowned out by similar displays in Oakland, New York City and elsewhere.

Katehi, who hadn’t leaved the press conference for three hours because “the crowd outside was perceived to be hostile,” finally exited the building and was not greeted with lobbed insults or slogans.

Rather, she was greeted with deafening, crushing silence.

Katehi cannot conceal the emotion from her face as she walks past the hundreds of stoic students, the chancellor’s heels clicking upon the pavement serving as the moment’s soundtrack.

When a reporter asks her if she still fears her students, she turns and softly says, “No…no…” But the look in her eyes is unmistakable. She has just attended the funeral of her legacy.

Where Occupy has flourished and other movements have perished is in the group’s refusal to be swept under the rug. Part of this resistance is displayed in moments of pure grit where protesters simply don’t give up when confronted with snow, rain, derision or the unyielding brutality of the police state.

But resistance also occurs when activists adopt guerilla tactics, including non-traditional protest. Much like Anonymous, OWS is a new wave of protest, a direct and significant challenge to the elite who are unaccustomed to such confrontation.

And the one percent find such evolved protest—this kind of global awakening—absolutely bone-chillingly terrifying. If the elites can no longer exploit xenophobia, red state–blue state civil war, racism, sexism or homophobia, how will they keep the underclass bickering while they run off with the country’s wealth?

This is why a well-known Washington lobbying firm with links to the financial industry proposed a $850,000 plan to smear the activists, or as they put it, “opposition research” in order to construct “negative narratives.”

This is also why Mayor Bloomberg had the NYPD raid Liberty Park’s encampment in the dead of night, and perhaps offers a clue as to why he chose yesterday to parade around yet another alleged bad guy, whom the NYPD had been tailing for two years, yet chose Sunday night as a good time for the Big Bust.

As Bloomberg’s popularity wanes, and the public cries out about vanishing First Amendment rights and police brutality, what better time to simulate a terrorist attack on television and remind everyone to remain terrified and compliant to the billionaire mayor and his army?

I’ve seen countless speculations about “What’s next?” for Occupy, but such theorizing is made in vain. No one knows what’s next for Occupy because the group isn’t like any protest movement that came before it. Yes, OWS borrows from concepts like Hooverville and the global justice movement, but in other ways it’s completely new, so speculating about what they’re going to do a month from now is pointless.

However, there has been some indications that in the coming cold winter months, the occupations will move indoors to condemned buildings and foreclosed homes. Such a maneuver would again place Occupy at the forefront of creative protest.

Ever since the wave of foreclosures began, there have always been rogue sheriffs who refused to kick people out of their homes, and community organizers who help move homeless people into abandoned houses, but there has never been a serious, organized national movement to reclaim the homes.

If ever there was a protest group equipped to attempt such a feat, it’s Occupy.

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio (wearecitizenradio.com) and independent journalist who blogs at allisonkilkenny.com. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the L.A. Times, In These Times, Common Dreams, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper The Indypendent.

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