Where now, Occupy?

An Occupy gathering here. They were many voices, most new to the world of protest.
An Occupy gathering here. They were many voices, most new to the world of protest. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

The tents are gone from Dilworth, the future course hard to see.

Posted: December 01, 2011

They say there are no second acts in American lives, and that seems especially true of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its local manifestation.

In fact, the local protest seems even more askew, at least in its symbolism. Occupy Wall Street actually occupied Wall Street, the locus of America's financial system.

Until its predawn eviction Wednesday, Occupy Philadelphia had set up its tent city at City Hall, the center of local government. Local government, if anything, is the victim of an economy that tanked.

While the plutocrats on Wall Street partied, the recession caused the city to cut services, increase local taxes, and put pressure on our local social-service apparatus. In short, the folks in City Hall aren't among the villainous 1 percent; they are tasked with helping the 99 percent who are victims.

(And now, our cash-strapped city government is facing bills in excess of $1 million to police and clean Occupy Philly's tent city.)

Now that the tents are gone, the legitimate question is: What next?

The answer, I fear, is nothing much. The interesting thing about Occupy is that it is not political, not in any conventional sense. It wasn't a genuine movement - more like a purposeful flash mob. It existed to make a point, and it succeeded. But once the point was made, what then? They just hung around and kept making the same point.

People like to compare Occupy to the tea party, but I don't see any parallel, other than the anger. Say what you will about tea party people, they are part of a political movement. They exist not just to make a point, but to make a difference. They organized to defeat their foes and elect their friends. Their voice magnified at the ballot box, they have become a force to be reckoned with.

Can Occupy's people do the same? Can they be an effective political force? I doubt they have the inclination. Or, if they do, it is likely to dissipate in the eight-hour-long meeting they will hold to reach consensus on what next. A statement will be issued. Dissenters will issue another. Those dissenting the dissent will issue a third.

It reminds me of the Left in the '60s - contentious, garrulous, amoeba-like in its ability to divide into new cells. When I was at Temple University in the late '60s, there came a point when we had four Marxist-Leninist groups on campus, later contested by two Maoist factions. They totaled about 40 people. By the end, they could have held meetings in a phone booth.

There was a lot of navel-gazing then. There is a lot today in the Occupy movement.

I don't think the folks involved, noble though they may be, have the skill set of great political operatives: single-mindedness, an impulse for action, a good sense of strategy and tactics, a relentless pursuit of goals. (See: Adams, John; King, Martin Luther; and Lenin, Vladimir.)

Nor should we expect them to have these traits. Most are, after all, new to the world of protest. It's not surprising they confuse the volume of media coverage with success. How can they know they are only the flavor of the moment, easily displaced by others, used up and spit out by the media machine?

And why not? Theirs is a story without real conflict. Without identifiable heroes or villains. Even the Right couldn't get its base riled over Occupy protests, though not for lack of trying. It was like trying to grab hold of squid.

Occupy folks are not the first to measure success by media exposure. From birth, they have been so immersed in media, their mere presence on TV, YouTube, Twitter, etc. validates them. Descartes' dictum, Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") has been displaced by Visus sum, ergo sum - "I have been seen, therefore I am."

Granted, there is power in being seen. But then there is real power. The power to change the course of history, to influence a nation, to change minds. That power is elusive and hard to obtain.

A defining moment of my youth was the 1963 march on Washington. I was 14, but sat mesmerized in front of the TV to see the 250,000 gather in the name of civil rights. Martin Luther King's speech was eloquent, inspiring, Shakespearean. His call to racial justice was a trumpet blast.

But, King was not born that day. He and so many who marched had fought for civil rights for years in the face of terrible violence and hatred.

And when the march was over, they did not fade into the mists. They continued their fight - on the ground, in the wards, at the voting booths. Like the tea party people, they were a genuine political movement.

They would never have watched coverage of their gathering and considered it a success.

The world has changed since then. Our media-saturated present is so different from the primitive black-and-white past, but that does not change the basic equation.

People who hold power never give it up without resistance. Sincerity - and a willingness to camp out in REI tents - won't do it.


Former Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis, a local news and information website at www.phlmetropolis.com.

 

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