Much has been made of the OWS movement’s apparent lack of leadership and concrete goals, its direct-participation organization and the idea of occupation as a radical act, and its utilization of technology. Based on my own historical research and the research of my colleagues, it appears that in truth, the only unique feature of OWS as a protest movement/mass demonstration is the technology, and this is only because such technology (and the resultant social organization/attitudes) did not exist in the past and so comparisons in that regard are apples-to-oranges. So in response to the question of “What is Occupy Wall Street?” my answer – from a historical perspective – is that it’s, well, nothing special.
Kara, in her post “What is Occupy Wall Street?“, discusses how OWS’s organizational principles are in line with long-established principles of true anarchism: loose organization, consensus-based egalitarian leadership, addressing economic grievances, and raising awareness. In addition, anarchism “seeks to transition the old system into one that fits their needs,” as opposed to a thorough overthrow of the existing system.
Erin has observed that the Great Depression saw similar economic-injustice/class-based protests. Protests on that subject go back to the 1800s with Coxey’s Army marching on Washington, D.C.–then, as now, the protestors were widely perceived as a disorganized mob.
So in this regard, the only radical thing about OWS is the literally radical (root-based) organizational mentality.
OWS’s use of the word “occupy” is another radical, original action that the movement is credited with – yet this blog post, by somebody self-identified as unaffiliated with the movement, highlights how OWS has only been employing a superficial sense of the word. To be situated in, to engage, to take possession of. The movement as a whole has not been engaging with the highly problematic history of the word as a key referent to white colonialism and oppression. Sophie Lewis suggests that, since the word is now so entrenched, people should consider actually radicalizing the concepts espoused–in other words, actually pursuing equality for all, rather than reinforcing various forms of oppression such as cissexism and the erasure of people of color. The Albuquerque movement, happily, is one example of an active attempt at true radicalization: it has chosen to call itself “(un)Occupy” to more accurately reflect the goal of decolonizing the 1%. If such cases of true radicalization (e.g. discussion of social privilege) become more widespread and even part of the popular discourse, then OWS could be said to have more of a unique aspect to it.
(Adrienne K. of Native Appropriations also applauds the Denver movement, and her whole post is worth reading in addition to Lewis’s writing.)
With regards to technology and OWS – my comparison of the Kent State shootings and the November, 2011 pepper spraying at UC Davis revealed that, while the internet is more “immediate and personal” than other media, images from the Kent State shootings spread just as rapidly after accounting for the built-in delay of media development. Therefore, it seems unfair to say that OWS is a wholly new form of protest due to the inclusion of instant-communication technology; rather, it is simply a protest of its time, of a society infused with current technology, just as previous protests were products of their technological means. Coxey’s Army did not have television or radio coverage to help speed the dissemination of its message like the social justice and anti-war/nuclear protests of the 1950s-60s; were the mid-20th century protests new forms of protests because they had ham or CB radio available for popular use (cf. twitter) or television to help get their message out to the public faster?
One could argue that there have always been “slacktivists” – people who say they support the cause, but don’t actually get themselves out there to do anything. Is writing letters to the editor, for example, a form of pre-internet slacktivism? Attending the big, publicized protest but not any other events? Wearing a shirt with the anti-nuclear symbol (now known as the peace sign) and leaving it at that? I am skeptical of claims that “Facebook activism” is somehow worse than previous ways of failing to commit to a cause.