The Occupy Wall Street movement is now almost four months old. It began with the spontaneous occupation of Zuccotti Park, a private enclave adjacent to New York’s Financial District, and has since mushroomed across the country. Few, if any, major cities have lacked an occupation. Most have camped in public parks or, as in Philadelphia, in front of government buildings. Unlike the Tea Party, which was apparently inspired by a broadcaster’s rant on CNBC — very much as in the film “Network” — and then taken up by right-wing pundits and moneyed interests such as the Koch brothers, Occupy Wall Street had no visible initiation point. It has, however, clearly drawn inspiration from the spontaneous street occupations of the Arab Spring. There are no general leaders or spokesmen. There is no program or set of demands. There is no unified expression except for the slogan “We are the 99 percent” — i.e., not the one percent of wealthiest Americans who pocket nearly a quarter of the nation’s income, control some 40 percent of its wealth, and consequently dominate its economic and political processes.
As a political phenomenon, Occupy Wall Street is a brilliant improvisation. It is very amorphous — its absence of leaders or platforms makes it difficult to account for in mainstream media terms, and impossible, at least so far, to co-opt. It is not so much a statement as a metaphor for the disenfranchisement felt by many millions — perhaps, as it claims, an overwhelming majority. It might be helpful here to go back to “Network.” In the film, a Dan Rather-ish TV anchor named Howard Beale suddenly calls upon his audience to shout from their windows, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Many proceed to do so, and Beale finds himself the voice of populist rage. But Beale’s protesters get no further than their windows. They don’t come together in the streets, and they remain as isolated as ever. Their only point of reference is Beale himself, who in fact has a nervous breakdown and is soon reabsorbed by the system.
Occupy Wall Street is all about coming together in the street — about reclaiming and recreating public space. It is a forum where people can share their experiences, try to figure out their situation and find a sense of empowerment through solidarity. The metaphor of the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is that the public space of a society belongs to the people. But it’s also a very concrete expression of the fact that millions have not voluntarily gathered on the street but have been forced there by foreclosure and dispossession. Some of the occupiers have come from comfortable and secure homes, but many are the actual homeless — either those literally driven onto the street or those, particularly the young, who see the dream of home ownership slipping away for good. In this sense, the Occupy tents and encampments recall the Hoovervilles that sprang up around Washington, D.C. during the Great Depression. Those camps were broken up by armed force, and the same force has been applied in New York, Oakland, Portland and elsewhere to disperse the occupiers.
A fallback for the occupiers is the college campus. Several campuses of the University of California have seen student demonstrations that have mimicked Occupy tactics. In a notorious incident at UC Davis, campus police Lieutenant John Pike pepper sprayed students sitting peacefully, as calmly and indifferently as a pest exterminator squirting DDT on bugs. At UC Berkeley, a former poet laureate of the United States, Robert Hass, was bullied and beaten by campus police.
The occupiers who have filled public spaces have, of course, included students. Unlike the demonstrations of the 1960s, however — the last time Americans tried to reclaim their own country — college campuses have not been the incubators of revolt but have instead been almost irrelevant to it. That, and the brutal response of campus security forces, speaks volumes for the corporatization of the modern academy and its near-invisibility as a site of public discourse. When people think of universities, they think now of debt machines that trap students in financial bondage before they even enter a pre-shrunk workforce. They think of business schools that have turned out the Wall Street crooks who have bankrupted the economy and of science labs in thrall to the defense industry. Whether the university can regain some of its lost honor may depend on whether its student “customers” decide to claim their lost birthright as citizens. Who knows? Maybe even some of their professors will.
Winter is here. Metaphors take you only so far. Occupy Wall Street may be the beginning of a new progressive movement, or even a revolutionary one. It’s too early to tell. But whether the tents remain awhile longer, the marker has been laid down. A public estranged from its political system has begun a Great Refusal. It isn’t a solution to what ails us, but it’s a start. After 40 years of numbness, silence and deep political repression, I hear my countrymen speaking again. It’s a good sound.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at email@example.com.