More on the Wall Street Protest

The Occupy Wall Street protest is now in its second week.  As I mentioned in my last post, this social-network inspired demonstration faces several obstacles.  Among these, two deserve special attention.  One obstacle is short term and the other is a more long-term concern. 

As the protesters have recently learned, the police do not have unlimited tolerance for occupation of public spaces and permit-less demonstrations.  It is illegal to march in the streets of New York City without a valid permit.  Protesters typically work in advance with police officials to map routes and even to arrange for peaceful arrests.  This ensures a space for protest.  But it diminishes the disruptive impact and symbolism of public dissent.  In this instance, the Wall Street protesters declined to negotiate the terms of their demonstrations.   Although they were initially allowed to peacefully occupy park space and were tolerated so long as they did not obstruct traffic, the police have turned up the heat.  The orange mesh netting first used at the 2004 Republican National Convention has been taken out of storage and put to use.  Pepper spray has been used on several protesters — including some who claim that they were peacefully protesting and in compliance with police demands.  The protesters’ determination and resolve will be tested as conditions on the ground intensify.  They will have to endure escalated uses of force by police.  In addition to the sacrifices of time and physical comfort, some will have to be willing to risk arrest and jail time.  These challenges are in addition to the usual problems of message control, rogue violence within the movement, and negative press accounts that focus more on violence and conflict than the substance of protesters’ grievances.

All nascent social movements face these sorts of short-term challenges as they vie for public attention and attempt to take root in public consciousness.  But there is a bigger challenge, one I alluded to at the end of my last post.  The challenge is broader and more deeply ideological than day-to-day street politics on Wall Street or the protests in Madison, Wisconsin (a more appropriate analog than the Arab Spring for what is happening on Wall Street today).  As Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, observed in a recent op-ed, “unionists and other stern critics of corporate power and government cutbacks have failed to organize a serious movement against the people and policies that bungled the United States into recession.”  As Kazin notes, the successes of earlier populist movements (of the left and the right) depended on decades of organizing, institution-building, funding, and articulation of populist platforms.  For Wall Street’s putative occupiers, the reality of corportate greed and economic mismanagement is evident.  But as Kazin points out: “If activists on the left want to alter this reality, they will have to figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice for the age of the Internet and relentless geographic mobility.”  That serious long-term challenge cannot be met on the streets of Manhattan or in the Capitol building in Madison.          


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3 Responses

  1. Re: “decades of organizing, institution-building, funding, and articulation of populist platforms.”

    I happened to address this topic in a recent blog post looking at KOR in Poland as a recent historical and sociological exemplum of the theory and praxis of nonviolence. KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee (later: Komitet Samoobrony Społecznej KOR/Social Self-Defense Committee, KSS-‘KOR’) played a direct “service” role in the emergence of Solidarity (or Solidarność, the first non-Communist party-controlled trade union in the Warsaw Pact countries) in 1980:

    In his book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995), Charles M. Payne shares Bob Moses’s understanding of the civil right movement as characterized by two forms of collective praxis and liberation: a “community-mobilizing” form and a “community-organizing” form. The latter was, and is, a necessary and but not always a sufficient condition of the former. It is not always sufficient insofar as community or social movement mobilization frequently requires a precipitating catalytic incident or event that serves as the tipping-point for people to step out of the routine of daily work and life and risk involvement in “history-making” species of collective action. Both forms of collective praxis occur on the terrain of civil society as the site of hegemonic struggles to capture the hearts and minds of individuals as part of a Gramscian (or Gramscian-like) “war of position” inspired by democratic values and principles that, ideally, rely on means and types of collective action in harmony with those values and principles and the short-term goals and long-term ends they necessitate. Those committed to the theory and praxis of nonviolence believe they’ve found the types and means of action best suited to, that is, in most harmony with, such emancipatory democratic values and principles. Albeit with some notable exceptions (e.g., Aldon Morris’ 1984 study, Origin of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communites Organizing for Change), narratives of the civil rights movement privilege “community-mobilizing,” and it is the form of collective action called to mind by “popular memory and the only part of the movement that has attracted scholarly attention,” understandable in part owing to the mass media’s focus on “large-scale, relatively short-term public events,” on historical display in “the tradition of Birmingham, Selma, the March on Washington…[and] best symbolized by the work of Martin Luther King.” Not in the foreground and klieg lights of mass media, but setting the stage as it were for such mass mobilization and social protest is the “community organizing” tradition that is the subject matter of Payne’s indispensable work. In this lesser-known tradition of nonviolent democratic praxis, there’s a “greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership in ordinary men and women, a tradition best epitomized” by Bob Moses himself, but also such remarkable individual as Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer.

    More generally, Payne informs us that “We do not ordinarily realize how much the well-publicized activism of the sixties depended on the efforts of older activists who worked in obscurity throughout the 1940s and 1950s.” Similar stories can be told elsewhere, as in the case of the “Self-limiting” and Velvet Revolutions in East-Central Europe, for example the forms of nonviolent action community organizing and social resistance that took place in the nooks and crannies of civil society in Poland as a necessary condition for the eventual emergence of Solidarity as both a “trade union” and wider social movement, the principal collective actor in the country’s “evolutionary” or “self-limiting” revolution. Of course that revolution cannot be explained without an appreciation of the structural role of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union that were officially instituted in 1985, but the comparative success of Solidarity cannot be accounted for without an understanding of such underground and above ground phenomena as the “Flying University” (TKN) or the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), the latter founded in support of striking Polish workers in 1976.

    The “new opposition” that formed in Poland in the 1970s was not entirely novel and thus there was an historical tilling of the soil for civil resistance and nonviolent politics: from the Polish October of 1956 and the Club of the Crooked Circle (Klub Krzywego Koła, 1955-1962), to Jacek Kuroń and Karl Modzelewski’s “Open Letter to the Party” (for which they were both imprisoned) and the “Letter of 34”in 1964, and the “unstructured strike” by predominantly women workers in the textile factories at Łódź in 1971, Poland was not without its fair share of historical examples of nonviolent civil resistance and opposition politics. Indeed, vast underground publishing networks, self-education societies (e.g., the ‘Flying University’ or Uniwersytet Latający, revived in 1977), cultural clubs and networks thoughout the arts, a “second economy” with its grey-black market, all of this and more existed prior to Poland’s nonviolent (i.e., ‘bloodless,’ ‘self-limiting,’ and ‘looking glass’) social revolution. With regard to groups and events that acted as precursors to KOR in particular, we learn from Jan Jósef Lipski’s invaluable study that in addition to some of the above, we can count dissident lawyers, writers and scholars; the Club of the Seekers of Contradiction; “Walterites” (pupils of Jacek Kuroń: ‘the nom de guerre of General Karol Świerczewski, the “General Walter” of the Spanish Civil War, and thus they identified themselves ideologically with the communist tradition’); the “Commandos” (‘the name was forged in the cell of the Polish United Workers (PUWP) party at Warsaw University’); the March 1968 student protests (including the few protests that followed the invasion of Czechoslovakia); the Scouts of Black Troop No. 1 and the Band of Vagabonds; students and young university graduates associated with the Warsaw Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK); Ruch (Movement); the trial of the “Tatra Mountaineers” (several young people arrested in 1969 for ‘having organized, in collaboration with some Czechs, the smuggling of copies of Paris Kultura into Poland by way of Czecholslovakia and across the Tatra Mountains’); sundry ‘minigroups’ of associates and sympathizers; the “Letter of 66” (also mistakenly known as the ‘Letter of 59’) signed by intellectuals and artists protesting changes in the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) (the Diet passed the constitutional amendments of February 10, 1976); and, as “the final act of the opposition by intellectuals before the creation of KOR was a letter of Edward Lipiński to Edward Gierek” (First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party from 1970-1980). In the words of Jan Josef Lipski, this letter, “which contained a many-sided critique of the system of governing and warned of catastrophe, became an important factor influencing the formation of a new social consciousness among the intelligentsia, and many of the ideas it contained were to enter into the standard repertoire of later attempts to forumlate a program.”

    Community organizing, as an umbrella term encompassing what it means to engage in “decades of organizing, institution-building, funding, and articulation of populist platforms,” is just the sort of “tilling of the soil” that seems, to me at any rate, missing in this case (I would be delighted to learn I was wrong about this). [notes omitted]

    For the post from which the above was taken:

  2. erratum: “I happened to address this topic in a recent blog post looking at KOR in Poland as an historical and sociological exemplum of the theory and praxis of nonviolence.”

  3. Michael Duff says:

    On the other hand, labor seemed dead as a doornail in the 1920s (witness the malaise reflected in the Lynds’ 1929 Middletown) but in very short order we have the CIO upsurge, beginning in the early 1930s. My grandfather, for example, was a relatively quiet baptist minister coal miner in the 1920s only to emerge as rabble rouser UMW member 4 or 5 years later. My admittedly limited reading of history reveals both preparatory percolation and inexplicable and unpredictable upsurge. I’m just of the school that remains somewhat unpersuaded of the necessity of rational purpose or concrete principles in explaining the onset of social movements. Anything seems to be possible.