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Occupy Wall Street Protests Are Reclaiming the Psychic Space

A good slogan captures the mood and acutely articulates a situation: "We are the 99%", "we are the crisis", or simply "no justice, no peace". As Lenin put it: "Every particular slogan must be deduced from the totality of specific features of a definite political situation".

In the past few months there has been a worldwide explosion of slogans emerging from strikes, protests, occupations, revolts, revolutions, die-ins, teach-ins, sit-ins, flash mobs and so on. Slogans, which seem to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once, are slowly reclaiming the psychic space that brands have for so long attempted to colonize. The explosion of slogans is making a mockery of mainstream politicians' own attempts at snappiness: What hope has the recent Tory party conference tagline "leadership for a better future" compared with "occupy everything"?

But a good slogan can only emerge out of an organized political situation. The protests on Wall Street are notable for many reasons, not least the way the protests have spread out across the entire country, mounting a kind of populist anti-Tea party movement, but one particular tactic, captured on video, has been widely circulated: the "human microphone", where, due to the need for a permit to amplify sound in New York, speakers are forced to break their speeches into short, blocky sentences, repeated by the assembled crowd, then repeated by those standing behind them, creating an effect both deeply moving, occasionally funny and strangely cult-like, as videos of Naomi Klein and Slavoj Zizek demonstrate.

It's a little like the scene from Truffaut's version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, where individuals memorize banned books and wonder around repeating them, except this time its collective and immediate: like the game of Chinese whispers but with shouting instead of mumbling, and direct communication rather than mishearing and incomprehension.


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In the US and elsewhere, protests don't seem to be going away anytime soon. Despite mass arrests, incarceration, serious public order charges, jail, fines, deterrent sentences and police violence, despite authorities and the media who spend so much time, money and effort making protest seem pointless, unpleasant and dangerous, people are coming out onto the streets and, in many cases, staying there.

More and more people are becoming aware that protest works, that some protests will (eventually) make it onto the news, that solidarity and reclaiming public space away from security guards, cameras and police is a wonderful thing indeed. Attending a protest is often a lightning-fast lesson in the way the state and media operate, with their stock cartoons of "bad protesters", "naive hippies", "good-for-nothing students" and so on. When protesters come under attack, when the state shows its repressive side time and time again, people who may never have known what it feels like to be systematically treated as an a priori "criminal" start to make links, to criticize other modes of state domination.

As Angela Davis puts it, when looking back over her own imprisonment in 1970:

"There was a relationship, as George Jackson had insisted, between the rising numbers of political prisoners and the imprisonment of increasing numbers of poor people of color. If prison was the state-sanctioned destination for activists such as myself, it was also used as a surrogate solution to social problems associated with poverty and racism. Although imprisonment was equated with rehabilitation in the dominant discourse at that time, it was obvious to us that its primary purpose was repression. Along with other radical activists of that era, we thus began to explore what it might mean to combine our call for the freedom of political prisoners with an embryonic call for the abolition of prisons."

Massive worldwide protest is just the beginning; now comes the opportunity for real change. As one Wall Street banner puts it: "We're not disorganized, America just has too many issues." America and everywhere else, that is.

Nina Power

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman (Zer0 Books)

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