In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.
-Alexis de Tocqueville
The Banality of Protest
We at Policy on Point have always held a critical eye toward the international financial establishment, whether we’re calling out terrible trades, terrible economics, terrible management or otherwise. But to be clear, it’s not because we dislike the capitalism. Rather, like any other major system it has both benefits and disadvantages. What’s important is that citizens be aware of the issues so that people can effectively engage them.
We have refrained from commenting on the Occupy Wall Street protests not because we are indifferent or don’t hold strong opinions, but because most political blogs are already saturated with ideological bias about them. Arguing with ideology is always a rigged game.
But recently, the bias in internet reporting on OWS has become so extreme that we feel it worthy of comment. I can’t log onto social media without being bombarded with dozens of references to police violence at protests, reports of governments suppressing the right of free speech or some other such aggrandizing representation of the protestors as moral beacons of freedom and egalitarianism fighting a holy battle with the forces of evil personified as local police.
Certainly there have been instances where police have used excessive force against undeserving protestors. But this one-way diffusion of knowledge production that has cast the protesters as strictly virtuous and the police as the banality of evil (in the truest Arendtian sense) is, quite frankly, bullshit.
It’s more than a little ironic that the people I know who are most involved in the movement are the same ones who dropped out of school, excessively used drugs, went into tremendous debt to finance frivolous expenses and now have the audacity to blame their current situation on ‘Wall Street.’
Protest movements have this peculiar way of cannibalizing themselves as they expand. The irony of Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution is perhaps the starkest example, with Robespierre being the dominant figure in the Reign of Terror, arresting and beheading the French aristocracy only to meet the guillotine himself in 1794 after being imprisoned in the same chamber that held Marie Antoinette as she awaited her execution the year prior.
One could similarly draw a wealth of examples from the Bolshevik Revolution; after all, Stalin exiled Trotsky and then had him killed with an ice axe.
This is not to discredit all revolutions, but society often casts a light on these revolutionary figures that conceals their tendency to do violence against the innocent around them. Movements bred from fury and frustration cannot immediately cast off this all-too-human tendency.
The Occupy Wall Street protests are no different. It began as a movement by the people and for the people, but has collapsed into a pool of angst and violence without direction, goals or understanding of the issues at hand. Perhaps some of them have goals, a plan, an understanding of economics and a vision of a new system. If such a person exists, shame on the movement for not recognizing their importance and organizing around their ideas. More probably however, these protests will attract those who would rather blame their situation on someone else, an ethereal entity like ‘the system’ or ‘the machine’ rather than take responsibility for their fortunes or make concrete strides to change them.
Today, I am declaring the Occupy Movement a failure. The protestors, in hundreds of cases, have been violent and criminal, not only towards the systems they seek to disestablish (which I could be persuaded is justified) but also against small, local businesses and each other.
Endemic Rape and Sexual Violence
In October, a 19 old student participating in Occupy Cleveland reported that camp leaders instructed her to share a tent with a man she didn’t know due to a shortage of sleeping facilities. The next day, she confided in a teacher that she had been raped. The teacher contacted the authorities.
Almost instantaneously, the Occupy Wall Street movement began attacking her. People who had no personal knowledge of situation suggested that the 19 year old was secretly working for the government and lying to make them look bad, while others claimed that she was asking for it by following instructions and sharing a tent with the man.
While such events are sickening, this case is not unique.
The Wall Street Journal reported that a cook in Zuccotti Park, working in a semi-official capacity with the movement, was arrested earlier this month in connection with the sexual assault of an 18 year old protestor who awoke to find the man raping her (who continued despite her repeated pleas for him to stop) and the groping and attempted rape of a 17 year old girl the day before.
A 14 year old was raped during Occupy Dallas, a man has been arrested for rape at Occupy Philadelphia, a deaf man was reportedly raped in New York, and rape has been reported at Occupy Baltimore, which has released pamphlets warning victims of sexual assault not to report the attacks to police. These are not isolated instances, but have come to define for many their experiences at the protests. In fact, the situation has gotten so bad that camps have established women-only ‘safe zones’ to try and limit the instances of sexual violence.
Most certainly, the true number of sexual assaults is even higher than is being reported. In one instance, a group of people who witnessed a sexual assault simply shined a flashlight on the attacker’s face, called him a pervert, and told him to leave. A woman interviewed by the New York Post about the Occupy Wall Street rapes simply stated “We don’t tell anyone…We handle it internally. I said too much already.”
In practice this has meant that people are bullied and intimidated into not reporting sexual violence to the police. A woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted in New York even had death threats made against her. These are not the people I want setting the economic and financial future of the planet.
Earlier this month, a 78 year old woman took an 11 hour bus ride from Detroit to Washington DC so that she could attend a dinner in tribute to former president Ronald Reagan. In a truly classless act, Occupy DC protestors who had been demonstrating at the event began taunting the elderly lady, yelling and screaming at her, before turning physically violent and pushing her down a flight of stairs. Was she part of the greedy “financial elite” destroying societal equality? Given that she rode public transportation for a half day to attend the event, probably not.
This violence is endemic. In San Francisco, a reporter witnessed 12 assaults in 24 hours. There have been numerous incidents of knife fights at these protests in multiple locations around the country, some of which have ended with people in the hospital. At Occupy Maine, a man was beaten with a hammer. At Occupy Oakland a man was shot and killed over a bag of pot.
At Occupy Victoria, protestors began attacking firefighters who were trying to extinguish a fire. When the police tried to stop them, the protestors began biting the police. At the same location, a group of protesting hooligans dumped a bucket of urine on a meager city worker, who no doubt represented the “one percent” in the eyes of the attackers.
The groups have even turned against those who have helped them. In San Diego, food carts gave free food to the protestors to show their support for the movement and solidarity with the people who came to challenge inequality. The protestors grew accustomed to the hand-outs but eventually, the food carts couldn’t afford to give away more for free. The response by the protestors? They became violent. They stole food from the vendors and splattered blood and urine on the carts. Were these street vendors part of the 1% destroying the financial opportunities for the other 99%? Maybe. Probably not.
A Legacy of Failure
With such misplaced anger and violence, one is forced to wonder how these groups believe they can be successful or change the minds of those in positions of economic and political power. It’s no wonder that the police have intervened in some of the protests. People criticize and boo the decision to break up the camp sights and ban the tent communities that have sprung up at these protests while never mentioning the ringworm outbreak at Occupy Santa Cruz, the tuberculosis outbreak at Occupy Atlanta or the lice outbreak at Occupy Wall Street.
On Thursday around 300 protestors were arrested in Zuccotti Park. I watched the protests live. I saw the crowds become increasingly violent. I saw them storm barriers and attack police. I understand why they were arrested. I always thought Michael Bloomberg was incredibly accommodating of the protestors, ensuring that they had a place to protest and that they weren’t hassled too much by the local police. After reading the stories referenced above and seeing the way the protestors acted Thursday, I feel he may have actually been too accommodating for too long. They are no longer a peaceful movement.
Is our global financial system perfectly egalitarian and fair? No, of course not. Should some structural changes be made in the way financial institutions allocate risk and incentives? Probably so. A movement that could engage these issues and strengthen our financial system while ensuring prosperity for those who work hard and seek it would be a movement I would respect. The Occupy Wall Street has not been such a movement. It has been a failure.