Listening to Zuccotti Park
From the beginning the protest on Wall Street has presented itself through a prolific array of Web outlets: Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, an immense Tumblr site, a nonstop Livestream video channel, multiple Youtube and Vimeo accounts, and three main websites (occupywallst.org, nycga.cc, and the original campaign page at www.adbusters.org.) Of course to say that the protest "presents itself" is already saying too much. Its strategy is multiplicity: whatever this protest is, it cannot be reduced to any single channel, any official voice, or any definitive agenda. Unlike all those demonstrations whose actions are designed solely to attract media coverage, Occupy Wall Street has managed to manifest itself and indeed to proliferate far beyond lower Manhattan without really presenting itself at all.
Instead, the occuption has thrived in the gap between airing grievances (which are many) and making demands (which would have to be few). Those who complain that the protest has failed to offer a clear program have failed to notice the precise ways in which such a program has been deliberately blocked or deferred. Meanwhile those who insist that the aims of the protest are quite obvious have overlooked not only the fact that its explicit aims keep shifting, but also that maintaining the occupation itself has been the only consistent aim all along. To ask "what is their message?" is misguided: there's no "their" there. Better many messages than the wrong one.
To whom should the messages be addressed, anyway? Not the government, since (as David Graeber put it in the Guardian) "that would imply recognizing the legitimacy of the politicians" against whom the protests are ranged. And not the mainstream media, who deal with the unruliness of the occupation by translating it into the usual repertoire of representations, alternating between gross generalizations and idiosyncratic vignettes. Here the medium really matters: the sheer profusion of messages circulating on social media has turned the whole movement into an open-ended experiment in political expression. On the ground and on the Internet, the protestors address their most radical questions to each other: who are we, really? what do we have in common? what do we want? No doubt some of them are keen to leverage the occupation into a political movement; they want to feel that they are standing at the start of something big. But many others are trying to see how it feels to secede from the dominant society altogether, for as long as they can. They would say that they have already succeeded.
None of this means that the protests are incoherent or inarticulate. In fact there have been several attempts at Zuccotti Park to draw up some kind of collective statement, with increasingly mixed results. So far there have four main texts presented as collective statements from the movement:
The occupywallst.org site features a text titled "A Modest Call for Action on this September 17," which has acquired a retrospective status as an inaugural document. It is sharp and succinct, offering an brusque critique of "the capitalist political system," rejecting various reform proposals, and calling for expanding protests, strikes, and occupations.
On September 21, the New York General Assembly released its fifth communiqué, taking up the question posed in the original Adbusters appeal, "what is our one demand?" The text offers eleven answers to that question, including "ending capital punishment," "ending poverty," "ending joblessness," "ending American imperialism," and "ending war." A note at the bottom indicates that "this is NOT a list of offical demands," and invites readers to participate in a democratic process to choose the "one demand." This approach was soon abandoned.
A few days later, on September 23, a draft statement of "Principles of Solidarity" was approved by consensus, consolidating handwritten public comments and committee deliberations into a brief 8-point list of "points of unity." It marked a strong shift toward affirmative values and a rhetoric of "engaging, exercising, empowering" people to build a "new socio-economic and political alternative."
This statement was then superceded by the General Assembly's September 29 "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," which remains the primary collective document released by the group. It opens on a grand note: "As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies." The document levels 21 accusations against those "corporate forces," concluding with an appeal to "the people of the world" to "assert your power." This "non-inclusive" list of grievances is far-ranging but somewhat scattershot, encompassing not only specific complaints about bailouts, foreclosures, health insurance, and the cruel treatment of animals, but also sweeping rejections of colonialism, inequality, and economic policy. Compared to the September 17 and September 23 texts, this one is more concerned with rehearsing a litany of symptoms than identifying their structural causes.
In the weeks since this Declaration, the three main websites have largely stopped posting communiqués and General Assembly minutes, presumably because Twitter, Facebook, and the live video feed are providing more raw material than anyone can possibly digest. Perhaps the tactic of issuing official texts to the outside world has become obsolete, and the internal need to bind the group through a political testament for external audiences has dissipated. As the occupiers in Manhattan dig in and the network of resistance expands and strengthens, the movement reinvents itself daily by adding ideas, images, and addresses to the mix. Even if the cops don't move in and the weather doesn't turn bad, nobody can really say where it will go tomorrow. That is already a great accomplishment.