Thursday, October 13, 2011

straight up

I've been spending so much time thinking/talking about #OWS that I need to do a quick brain-dump on my thoughts on the situation to stay productive. So here they are.

Before I say anything, let it be known that I fully support #occupywallstreet and if I wasn't one of the lucky few whose skill set, hustle (and privilege) allows me to make ends meet without a day job, I would be occupying wall street too. But I think I owe it more to those who can't to follow my dream and I don't think the movement really needs more lefty intellectuals. But what really pushed me to the point of having to write something is Tom Morello's inane statement that he "wouldn't be surprised to see Blackwater called in" in response to the protestors not wanting to leave.

I started following a lot of writers in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. I've been reading live-coverage and looking at graphic pictures of what an unchecked and brutal police force can do against a rebellious public. Pepper spray is nothing when hospitals are being bombed and doctors are being put on trial for sedition for trying to heal the injured. I also have vivid memories of the 2004 Presidential debates, where massive protests stayed peaceful until a bunch of anarchists charged a wall of riot police. They were arrested and failed to start a damn riot, for better or for worse.

I'm wary of "protest culture." People (ie my friends and twitter acquaintances) were salty about the lack of media coverage of #OWS when it started gaining momentum, but I think nobody paid attention because there are always protests going on in New York City. There are a lot of things to protest! But when you see a group of union workers milling around with signs on a street corner, or some white dudes with dreads holding signs on a daily basis, it blends into the background. New York is filled with unpleasant reminders of how hard life can be; if I'm not giving money to a homeless man with a festering wound on his bare foot, I'm probably not going to react much to well-reasoned reminders of the fucked up corporatized country/world we live in. Protests aren't news when a certain type of people are doing them.

(So that being said, I was thrilled when the Transit Workers Union supported #OWS, and then marched in support and have donated both manpower and money to the cause. In my time in the professional left, there was always a gap between well-meaning students and blue-collar workers; bridging that divide legitimizes a movement quite a bit.)

I'm also wary of protest culture's antagonistic relationship with the police. On one hand, it's entirely understandable and totally justified. There are a lot of asshole cops, and the NYPD (and most police departments) hate the protest culture right back, and nobody is surprised when some bastard pepper sprays some innocent people. But I'm a little more sympathetic to the guys who have to contain the marches, and less sympathetic to anyone who gets smacked while trying to breach a metal barrier. New York is a really great place to protest (less so than it used to be, I know), and despite all of Bloomberg's grumbling, the city has been has been accommodating to #OWS. Posting up in Zuccotti Park is legal, if not welcome, and it's pretty amazing that nobody's been forced out yet. Both Brookfield, which owns Zuccotti Park, and the NYPD have been refreshingly grown-up about the whole situation. While "we don't have the legal justification or jurisdiction to kick these dudes out" is cool, we all know that if the powers that be wanted them out, the NYPD would find a way.

This all is the bizarro flipside of Elizabeth Warren's amazing critique of the idea that taxes get in the way of corporate growth: taxes pay for the infrastructure which makes small business growth possible in the US, and New York City's liberal approach towards protest allowed for #OWS to get as big as it is. Shit was not as sweet in Boston. And while there's been significant union support in Boston, I'm not sure it's been as strong as it has in New York, and I don't get the sense the crowd has diversified much beyond your average protest crowd.

That being said, I understand it wouldn't be this way without the constant push-back of career activists, leftist politicians, lawyers, citizen journalists and rabble-rousers. New York is a liberal city because of the multitude of people who fight to keep it that way, often at their own peril, and I fully support that. But there is some truth in that "serve and protect" credo, and while #OWS's homegrown institutions are amazing, I wouldn't feel great about homegrown security.

So that brings us to the point we are at now, where Bloomberg wants to clean up Zuccotti Park -- literally. It's a shanty town, and it's apparently gross. The plan sounds both reasonable and necessary, and I rolled by eyes when I saw protesters were, of course, digging in their heels and setting up a plan to clean up the park themselves. But the word is NYPD/Brookfield has been looking the other way on a stated rule against lying down, sleeping, tarps, sleeping bags, and settling in for permanent residency of any kind, and they are going to end that courtesy after the clean-up. That would effectively end #OWS as an occupation. It's a serious impasse!

So it was in that context that Tom Morello said he wouldn't be surprised if Blackwater showed up. Note that I fucking hate Tom Morello because I saw his Nightwatchman shtick open for The Coup a few years ago, and it was the most inane, pandering, outdated protest-folk one could imagine. It was about as hard-hitting as a conscious track. It bordered on self-parody.

And I don't think we'll be seeing Blackwater called in, not because Blackwater no longer exists (they changed their name to Xe), but because there are some truths to the future of #OWS, possibly ones that NYPD head Ray Kelly is smart enough to understand. There is a direct relationship between violence and attention -- bringing in a bunch of roided-up ex-Marines to mow everyone down would probably elicit some kind of violent uprising among anyone left, and more importantly, a guarantee Bloomberg wouldn't get elected next term. (Also: SO MUCH PAPERWORK. Remember when Prez accidentally shoots the wall in season 1 of The Wire and Carver is like "you fire your gun, you write"? Yeah, that.)

I don't know what happens next, and we might find out later today. But it raises some interesting questions about the long-term goals of #OWS. But on that note, I want to say a healthy "fuck you" to everyone questioning the long-term goals of #OWS, as grounds to dismiss the movement outright.

I saw the really amazing Iraq War play/documentary Black Watch earlier this year. It tells the story of what was once Scotland's military elite regimen, and how the war in Iraq whittled them down. It ends with the troops doing a big military exercise/dance routine, on some "this is all so fucking stupid and insulting and dangerous that we have run out of words to express ourselves, so we are showing it physically by dancing." It sound really dumb but it's incredibly powerful.

I see a parallel in #OWS. I don't know what #OWS is trying to accomplish, per se. The banks/Wall Street are part of the problem, but not the whole problem, and I would venture a lot of bankers and traders are on board with #OWS. Wall Street is stupid, banking is a big shell game, but they're also responsible for a lot of American prosperity (and global prosperity). We are where we are more as a result of the greed and arrogance of a small few, than because capitalism is evil in and of itself. This picture is dumb as hell, and this article makes the point pretty nicely that capitalism isn't monolithic.

But even without a stated goal, cohesive mission statement, or easily identified leadership, you don't have to know very much to understand that Americans are being screwed. Not "some Americans," not blue-collar workers, not immigrants, not Blacks, not Muslims; while there's a lot of fuckery going on in the United States, we are all united in how we are being fucked by the power structures in our country. The wealth gap is turning parts of America into the third world. Employment is increasingly scarce. Healthcare is unreasonably expensive (especially without a job). Our wealth is being funneled into the well-protected bank accounts of the elite, and into a pair of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose cost in lives and treasure (American and otherwise) is absolute unforgivable. What little money the people have left isn't enough to fuel the consumer demand that is supposed to drive our economy. The foreclosure epidemic is gutting previously pleasant neighborhoods, both urban and suburban (and exurban). Our refusal to support infrastructure and public educational institutions is a ticking time bomb. All that and I'm not even getting political yet!

The backlash against #OWS is a glorious cornucopia of straw men. It's easy to go down to Zuccotti Park and find a few freaks, then dismiss the entire movement accordingly. And it's easy to shoehorn the movement into whatever box one finds easy to write off. My personal favorite is the failed musician, who really just sounds hella mad that nobody liked his rock music. I said this on twitter that I would pay like $1000 to see Slim Thug yell at this dude about his lack of hustle. Oh and shout out to the dude who tried to poop on a police car.

(And I'm guilty of this shoehorning too, as you know if you read my amorphous critiques of "protest culture" above. Just sayin!)

But anyways, #OWS's lack of message or uniformity is its beauty. It doesn't have a point. It doesn't have a goal. It pure, manifested frustration and anger. Anyone with a basic understanding of how our country works knows things aren't working the way they're supposed to. Everyone else has, I guess, been brainwashed into thinking they are entirely to blame for their debt, unemployment or other problems.

And because I have faith in people, I have faith in #OWS's future and longevity. I understand the frustration with the lack of media coverage, but I also know that grown folks peacefully demonstrating (or even somewhat violently demonstrating) is not interesting to most people, even if they support the movement. And that's why the media pays more attention to the Tea Party's unintentional hilarity: not because of some vast conspiracy, but because a fat white dude yelling about liberty in a tri-cornered hat is a lot more entertaining than actual political discourse. Coverage does not equal popularity though! According to Time, #OWS is twice as popular as the Tea Party. (This is the same reason the media keeps acting like anyone who isn't Mitt Romney is actually going to win the Republican nomination).

Another thing to consider: the NYPD has a union, and the cops are blue collar workers fighting for funding just like everyone else. That goes for every city in America. We all love The Wire, so we should all have a little sympathy for cops, many (most?) of whom are just guys and gals who took a career which is kind of cool, pretty interesting, and also affords the stability of a government job. And no matter how diversified, globalized a bank is, or how much they pay lobbyists, you can't squeeze blood from a stone. We're on a downward spiral (no Reznor) that affects everyone with exposure to, well, society. So its no surprise to see some bankers embracing #OWS. Even if he's just pandering for the sake of good PR (or fear?), Pandit's words do mean something.

(Side note: is it just me or is Bank of America the biggest sucker on the planet right now? Every bank was "poised to" charge a service fee for using a debit card in response to new laws about maximum swipe fees and their transparency, but how dumb do you have to be to be the bank that goes first? Am I naive or are Chase and Wells Fargo just gonna sit back and enjoy all the new customers they pick up from BoA by not tacking on that service fee? Maybe I underestimate the fraternity and trust between bankers, but between this and that BoA somehow got talked into buying Countrywide, who held the lions share of the hopeless mortgages in America, BoA just looks dumb as hell. Anyways.)

So looking to the future. This isn't ending any time soon, as things aren't getting better for us any time soon. I'm looking forward to the political ramifications of #OWS and its sister movements across the country. Think about how much good will could come from candidates visiting the sites! Think about candidates pressing the flesh of such a diversified audience without having to raise the funds and media attention to get them there! Think about the opportunities to network and build relationships with community organizers, union leaders and ordinary frustrated people! If I'm running for office in 2012 -- ANY office, from city council to the senate -- and I'm a democrat, I'm pressing up a one-sheet, putting on a nice suit and heading down to the 99% movement in my local city. Because it's not a uniform, well-organized movement with a few leaders whose endorsement can look good on paper. It's a grab bag of frustrated, smart, reasonable informed people, many of whom probably gave up on politics (especially local politics!) years ago.

(Related: fuck anyone who "doesn't vote" because it "doesn't do anything." You've forfeited your right to complain.)

OK I've spent three hours writing this and I feel like my head is clear. Thanks for reading.