now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year
Every day I walk past the Occupy movement here in Chicago. At this point, the protesters are not so much occupying the financial district as, well, cluttering it. Occupy Chicago is languishing and may soon die.
I’m sympathetic to the Occupy movement, but I wish it were less murky and more articulate. A protest movement cannot be viable without at least a few specifics and an implicit goal. “We are the 99%” points to the problem of growing wealth and income inequality in the US, but what is the goal of the 99%? To become the 90%? The 100%? The slogan itself is a conceptual dead end.
If you were somehow to poll the 99 percent, the image that the Occupy slogan so powerfully conjures–of a huge unified mass–would dissolve into several distinct demographics, including a big bloc of very affluent Americans, a huge struggling middle, and the true have-nots, each bloc characterized by divergent interests and needs. A protest movement seeking to channel the discontents and grievances of such disparate groups must be savvy indeed.
It’s possible to construe the Occupy movement more generously, as having the broader aim of expressing the marginalization and powerlessness that have resulted–and are resulting–from the disproportionate concentration of wealth and power in the hands of too few institutions and people. The protesters are right in seeking to lay the realities of social suffering at the doorsteps of those whose actions and policies have caused America’s woes to balloon and intensify. (Even Bloomberg.com has been airing a debate about corporate psychopaths on Wall Street.)
Even so, the muteness and inarticulateness of these protests is striking. The Occupiers seem unaware of the great protest tradition that they are heir to. Compared to the protests of the sixties or the thirties or to some of the great European protest movements, this one is wanting in intellectual energy. The aural trademarks of the movement–its drumbeats and Occupiers’ use of a human microphone–are robotic, as if the protesters have given up on the important task of finding exactly the right words to give voice to their grievances and rage.
I, personally, would love to hear something more human and pointed. Even a few verses from protest songs of yore would be refreshing. Some of those had the power to sting. One of the purposes of protest is to shame, and, to excel at this, one has to get specific and creative. Old songs like “I sold my soul to the company store” brilliantly compressed the ugly dynamics and personal costs that flow from exploitation. Occupy needs an anthem–badly. It would be a beginning.