What Occupy Does Do Right

Occupy’s sustained egalitarianism deserves recognition

Wall Street is still occupied. So is Boston. So is the City of London, where officials at St. Paul’s Cathedral and the wider Anglican Church have become embroiled in a major row with authorities over their refusal to evict protesters from the steps of the Cathedral. Over the previous month, we have voiced skepticism over the movement’s potential to see its grievances addressed, and argued that the Occupy protesters would do better making use of the democratic institutions at their disposal. Yet despite these concerns, it is striking how well Occupy Wall Street has sustained itself over the past month and spread from what was originally a demonstration in New York City to a movement with real global reach. Many expected these acts of civil disobedience to remain confined to a few fall weekends. Instead, as evidenced by the large demonstration in Oakland last Wednesday, Occupy continues to grow and surprise with both its energy and knack for cropping up in places less expected than downtown Manhattan.

Occupy has never had a coherent structure nor seemingly aspired to one. Heading toward the end of the year, it and its derivatives have truly made 2011 a year of global dissent, despite this dissent coming in many different forms. It is thus all the more compelling that disparate and largely disorganized manifestations of the original Occupy Wall Street respond and act in solidarity with each other. The ability to attract so many students, who were noticeably absent as a major demographic within the Tea Party and from protests against the Iraq War, bears striking resemblances to the Obama campaign in 2008 and gives the movement a sense of accomplishment just by energizing our notoriously apathetic generation of Americans. In Boston, many of these students have protested against the burden of student loans, launching a new issue under the Occupy banner and responding to the electric, populist nature of its anti-Wall Street anger.

More and more, we appear to be witnessing the creation of a new strand of political activism that is inescapably worth attention precisely because it does things differently. The inclusive and participatory nature of its General Assembly and decision-making processes are of course worthy of commendation themselves; however, Occupy’s obsession with total democracy in everything it does has also furnished observers with its great diversity of opinion and concerns. So far, the opinions of the alleged 99 percent have not been subsumed into one brief list of problems and proposed changes. This does make Occupy’s events and the orchestration of these events more subtle than many, including this newspaper, have previously given them credit for.

Since Occupy remains, for the moment, geared away from working actively toward the redress of its participants’ grievances, we hope that its engagement translates across the sphere of political involvement and activism. Occupy remains a street protest; policy changes will not emerge out of a campsite in Dewey Square, much less would it appear this campsite’s inhabitants are eager for it to take on this role. Their efforts would be complemented by greater, mass individual involvement at the local and national electoral levels. More of the population, especially more young people and more minorities, needs to be voting. More people should pressure their representatives, and more individuals should get involved themselves in local politics. In the end, the situations out of which these grievances arose and which have animated so many people will not be solved except through engagement within our existing political structures. Together, we can hope to address massive inequality more effectively and build a stronger democracy. Occupy becomes increasingly the inspiration for greater action, not the means of achieving results.