The cover page of The New York Times 2011 end-of-the-year feature, “The Year in Pictures,” is Moises Sama’s photograph of a young clean-up volunteer, standing amid the rubble in Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s resignation last February. The photo is taken at night, and the man is luminously backlit by what looks like fires and lights in the background, as he stands slightly apart from a blurred crowd of people. Inside are four more pages of photos of protests around the world, (half focused on the U.S.).
Time named THE PROTESTER its person of the year for 2011. “No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on the map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain,” Rick Stengel writes, introducing the magazine’s choice (2011: 53). The “Words Committee” of the American Dialect Society deemed “occupy” the 2011 Word of the Year. “It's a very old word, but over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement," said Ben Zimmer, chair of the Words Committee (Gallman 2012).
All these end-of-the-year retrospectives tell the tale of something old that seems, also, somehow new: an awe-inspiring, quick, and surprisingly conta-gious resistance movement, uniting frustrated citizens in over 80 countries in a tweet-and-post global revolutionary spirit. Around the world, people were desperate enough, angry enough, passionate enough to risk militarized government-sponsored reprisals for gathering en masse, for speaking out against government corruption, inequality, and poverty.
I imagine many of you, like me, were inspired and surprised to see class-conscious protests erupt across the globe. I was especially surprised when the Occupy Wall Street movement spread across this country (and back across oceans, to many other countries), as if in answer to my wondering why not here? I was amazed when people flocked to set up encampments, building on-the-spot idealistic socialist grassroots communities in public parks – and then impressed by how long they stayed.
Most people I talk to about political matters are (like me) basically cynical pomo-marxists (we might rather say socialists). We believe everything is totally fucked up; we can easily enumerate the ways. (Many of us do this routinely in our jobs as educators.) Solutions are a far more difficult matter – we know what they should be, in principle, but we haven’t seen very many enactments of the kinds of changes we believe are needed. We’ve seen a lot of things go wrong. We’re mostly middle-aged and older; so we’ve lived through a lot more political disappointments than we care to (or are able to) remember. We don’t rally much hope about the possibility of an actual revolution that would totally topple corporate capitalism or definitively dis-mantle corrupt government regimes – maybe a few here and there, but not on a global scale. We doubt the power of demonstrations such as these to achieve real, lasting change: we know the stakes-holders in the status quo – the 1% and their minions – are ready to respond, to protect themselves and their ways of staying rich. I’ve been thinking about the ways in which we also function as part of these minions (and what a weird word minion is, so simultaneously alike and different from onion – it probably never will win Word of the Year).
In the U.S., the strain on city budgets was really all it took for police harassment and outright brutality to begin against Occupiers last fall. Surveillance, too, is increasingly deployed as a local and federal and inter-national mechanism of social control. The National Defense Authorization Act, signed by Obama late last year, renews controversial and seemingly unconstitutional elements of the Bush administration’s decade-old Patriot Act. It allows for the indefinite detention and basically unregulated surveillance of people suspected of terrorism, without demonstration of probable cause.
“It should come as no surprise that law enforcement agencies – thus empowered – have shown up at various Occupy protests armed with cameras, most certainly, to keep surveillance on protesters who are merely exercising their first amendment rights,” writes Ayesha Kazmi for The Guardian (2011). And it wasn’t a surprise when official responses to Occupiers shifted from accommodation to vicious antagonism. If only militarized surveillance and violent assault were unimaginable responses to non-violent demonstrations, rather than the staples of governance that they have become.
Ironically, it has been the counter-surveillance tactics of Occupiers, themselves, that have resulted in the dissemination of so many images of police brutality. Their images, beamed into global memes, seem to have increased sympathy for the protesters, and disapproval of violent police tactics. Despite detractors’ criticisms of them as agenda-less, Occupiers have led targeted efforts against a variety of inequitable local and national social problems. Here in Atlanta, Occupy’s demonstrations have included: a rally and march opposing the planned closing of a downtown homeless shelter by a hospital owned by Emory University; organized resistance against foreclosures (homes and a church); and a demonstration against the death penalty.
Michael Moore has charged that the various violent and militaristic tactics of local police departments utilized against Occupy protesters are a result of orders from above. “This is not some coincidence. This was planned and I think the question really has to be asked of the federal government and of the Obama administration, ‘Why? Why? Why are you participating in this against a non-violent mass movement of people who are upset at what Wall Street and the banks have done to their lives?’” Moore said (cited in Rothman 2011). It’s hard for me to imagine that President Obama would overtly endorse this violence; but it’s also hard to imagine he couldn’t put a stop to it.
On October 6, the White House tweeted, “Protesters are giving voice to a more broad based frustration about how our financial system works” (Baio 2011). On October 18, President Obama told ABC news, “I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests,” he said. However, he went on to say that Occupy protests are “not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the Tea Party. Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government. They feel that their institutions aren’t looking out for them,” (Dwyer 2011). Here, Obama appears sympathetic to both Occupiers and Tea Partiers, while simultaneously casting Occupiers as equivalent to extremist reactionaries, the people who are his own worst enemies. Obama hasn’t said much more about the movement; there is no mention of the protests on the list of “Issues” discussed on his website. I am looking forward to seeing how the revolutionary spirit of the Occupy movement affects this year’s election.
Can there be such a thing as an anti-capitalist globalization, a worldwide people’s occupation? I find this idea pretty thrilling. Despite my cynicism, I feel a sense of hope about the power of protests to effect change. I think it is clear already that the Occupy movement has raised awareness of income inequality in the U.S. Why not a new, expansive sense of class identification that rewrites the typical divide-and-conquer tactics of the owners of the means of production? The notion that outrage against the most wealthy can forge a new kind of bond betweeneveryone else is appealing.
What would Marx say? I think he would be so excited, thinking (in German): “Finally, finally, my predictions are coming true! Capitalism will be its own undoing, at long last!” He might be getting ahead of himself. But change is inevitable, and who knows what will happen?
Happy New Year, SSSP members!
And here’s hoping for a better world.
Baio, Andy. 2011. “Tracking the U.S. Government’s Response to #Occupy on Twitter.” Wired Epicenter (Nov. 29). http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/11/codeword-govt-response-to-ows/all/1.
Devin Dwyer . 2011. “Obama: Occupy Wall Street 'Not That Different' From Tea Party Protests.” ABC News (Oct. 18). http://news.yahoo.com/obama-occupy-wall-street-not-different-tea-party-171041906.html.
Gallman, Stephanie. 2012. “Linguists name 'occupy' as 2011's word of the year.” CNN website (Jan. 7). http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/07/us/2011-word-of-year/index.htm.
Kazmi. Ayesha. 2011. “Occupy and the militarisation of policing protest.” The Guardian (Nov. 3). http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/ 2011/nov/03/occupy-militarisation-policing-protest.
Rothman, Noah. 2011. “Michael Moore: Federal Government, Obama Behind ‘Occupy’ Evictions. (November 16). Politicology. http://www.ology.com/politics
Stengel, Rick. 2011. “2011 Person of the Year.” Time v. 178, no. 25 (Dec. 26 - Jan 2): 53.
By: Wendy Simonds, Ph.D.
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