Occupy Wall Street: Reclaiming Public Space, Reclaiming Dignity

This movement deserves our keen attention, not knee-jerk derision.

As the public-space prairie fire known as Occupy Wall Street spreads across the country from New York to Portland, it's becoming glaringly apparent activists are pinging the political target. In the face of both predictable right-wing detractors as well as high-profile liberals who want a crisp list of specific demands, activists have rejected top-down, slicker than slick press-release politics in favor of messy, slow, ground-up politics -- the essence of radical democracy. Because the movement is leaderless, it has left the media rudderless.

At first many journalists were befuddled, wondering what the movement stood for. This is a bit odd. After all, the movement is called Occupy Wall Street and one of its central slogans is "We are the 99 percent." People are fed up with the wealthiest 1 percent reaping the economic rewards, with the super-rich stuffing their pockets while the rest of us -- the 99 percent -- are left holding the bag.

Occupy Portland MarchOccupy Portland March

Let's not forget, corporate America is squatting on $2 trillion. According to the Federal Reserve, this is the biggest corporate stockpile since the 1950s. Meanwhile, Wall Street "banksters" and financiers have had their bonuses restored to pre-recession levels, while the unemployment rate clicks upward. Talk about gall.

When the media weren't ignoring Occupy Wall Street, they've been busy attacking it. Many journalists slid into the well-worn ruts of covering dissent: treating activist outliers as movement spokespeople, maligning them for having too many disparate causes, deriding them as ignorant, zany, or disruptive. Naomi Klein dubs such mocking and deprecation "a sick cultural ritual" perpetrated by the press.

Right-wing columnist Rich Lowry offered an extreme caricature of the attack-dog punditocracy when he wrote, "The left's tea party is a juvenile rabble, a woolly-headed horde," a band of "stereotypically aging hippies and young kids who could have just left a Phish concert." Notice what gets lost: actual ideas.

Such coverage is reminiscent of 1999 when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called the anti-WTO activists in Seattle "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960's fix." We'd be wise to note, though, he went on to write a book called "The World Is Flat."

Even National Public Radio -- the trusty barometer of bourgeois sensibilities -- conspicuously ignored OWS only to start covering it with metronomic predictability. In one recent segment, an NPR correspondent went to Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, where she homed in on a scrappy cigarette salesman who said, "Everybody is supporting it because they know it keeps people calm, you know, everybody needs their nicotine." How this helps us understand why people have taken to the streets is a mystery. Then, in a flimsy gotcha moment, the journalist pointed out how anti-corporate activists were using the restroom at McDonald's and corporate mobile phone firms. What an insight.

The media -- and the rest of us, too -- have been primed to expect shiny, focus-group-tested activism with sharp, calculated messaging and snazzy graphics. We've been taught that the economic ends justify the political means.

With its real-deal grass roots approach and consensus-based decision-making, OWS -- and its offshoot movement Occupy Portland -- explodes these expectations. The movement is a dynamic process, not a static thing. They don't have behind-the-scenes bigwig funders. These activists are showing us how to slow down, take each other seriously, and identify the real culprits in our economic debacle -- they shouldn't also be expected to concoct policy.

On the gerbil wheel of Twitter and Tumblr this might seem quaint or lacking goal-oriented ambition. But for those who take an open mind down to Occupy Portland's vibrant encampment at Chapman Square, you'll find people courageously living by Edward Abbey's maxim that "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul."

Plus, if the movement were more decidedly focused, they'd likely be derided as a single-issue group. If they had a list of precise demands, they'd be criticized for being too wonkish. The quizzical insistence that it enumerate concrete demands is an expression of the instant-gratification-is-too-damn-slow mentality that pervades our thinking today.

Slavoj Zizek recently wrote in the London Review of Books: "We are often told that privacy is disappearing, that the most intimate secrets are open to public probing. But the reality is the opposite: what is effectively disappearing is public space, with its attendant dignity."

The Occupy Wall Street moment, which has flowered into an Occupy Together movement, has done us the favor of reclaiming public space. It has also reclaimed the political energy of this country. And it may well help us reclaim our collective dignity in the face of Wall Street's systematic rapacity.

People across the political spectrum are tired of legalized plunder. And they're tired of the politicians who bail out the banks and lock out the workers. Politics have become shambolic, and the Occupy Wall Street movement aims to inject some humanity into what's become a cruel, corrupt political-economic system, some modicum of consensus into a polarized shout-festival. This movement deserves our keen attention, not knee-jerk derision.

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