The appearance of OWS has been a thrilling event and incipient movement. It has already shifted the terms of debate in national and electoral politics, even as it has stimulated intense intellectual excitement among academics. How do we (and might we) understand what it is, characterize what it portends, and engage it? My goal here is to wonder out loud about the relationship between this movement or event, and the inherited (or even recently minted) categories we use to interpret it, and so also about how we relate thought and action.
First there was the “Tea Party” and now there are the various “Occupy Wall Street” movements. The former was from its start better organized and financed than the latter, and one is on the right while the other is on the left, but both are responses to similar frustrations and fears besetting America. Analogous movements, some of them already heading toward more violent confrontations, are springing up in Europe as well.
On December 1, 2011, twenty-four people joined together in a small Pennsylvania town to show their solidarity with the protesters of Tahrir by targeting a company that makes tear gas used in the suppression of crowds in Tahrir Square. Their numbers were not great, but their example anticipates the kind of consequential solidarity that could develop globally. More than a message gone viral or a day of simultaneous protest about inequality’s injustice, focused actions that publicize the chains of injustice linking distant sites can transform the ways in which we think not only about solidarity, but the conditions movements seek to change.
You can learn a lot about a movement by listening to its opponents. Everywhere, evidence is accumulating that at the level of formal power relations, the targets of the Occupy Wall Street movement—banks, transnational corporations, and the politicians who serve them—are quaking in their boots at the sight of a mass, leaderless, flexible, inchoate, constantly morphing movement characterized by unprecedented solidarity across formerly separate and even antagonistic groups and by the use of direct, disruptive, and innovative tactics.
Occupy Wall Street and cognate groups around the world are part of a protest movement that is both global and local. It is global in terms of geographic scope, thematic range, and social composition. It is local in terms of the specific objects of protest and the protesters’ goals. The organic blending of the global with the local is reflected in the very unfolding of this worldwide wave.
Across America police have been called to clear protestors from parks and university campuses. Ostensibly progressive cities like Portland and Oakland have been in the vanguard of evictions. From Harvard to Berkeley, university presidents have joined mayors in using police in riot gear to remove students and other protestors from campus lawns. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took pride in giving police a direct order to evict the original Occupy Wall Street encampment from Zuccotti Park. The police moved in at night and made a point of blocking media coverage of their actions.