Occupy Wall Street: What is it, Really, and Who Should Be Opposed?

Goodness knows we’ve heard enough about Occupy Wall Street this year. Protest, in America and around the world, has been so prevalent that Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011 was the protester. But what is Occupy Wall Street, really?

Occupiers have made a unique virtue of the fact that their movement is almost impossible to definitively characterize. Because the movement is completely local and spontaneous, lacking any central command, plan, or polling commission, nobody actually has any way of quantitatively evaluating the opinions or political leanings of its constituents. Some Occupiers argue that this doesn’t matter; their single demand, they say, is not liberalism or conservatism: it’s sanity. I’ll revisit that later.

For purposes of this entry, I’m going to use an opinion poll of Zuccotti Park’s OWS protesters conducted in late October by political analyst Doug Schoen and my own personal observations as a member of my own local OWS protest and a friend of Occupiers in New York and Texas.

The “Internet reputation” of OWS, touted by many opponents and supporters alike, has been that of a crowd of roving socialist hippies, many of them young, with a hearty sprinkling of homeless people. This is is half true:

The “average views” of OWS are certainly more liberal than those of the general population; over 77% of Zuccotti Park protesters polled by Doug Schoen reported wanting higher taxes on the rich, 70% wanted more government regulation on finance and industry, and 65% believed that the government had a moral responsibility to guarantee healthcare, college education, and secure retirement for all in this era’s tangled and globalized economy.

However, let’s note what’s surprising about this figure: 13% did not want the rich to be taxed more. 30% did not want more government regulation. 35% did not believe that healthcare, college education, and secure retirement were the government’s province to guarantee. Indeed, Schoen’s poll showed that while 1/3 of Zuccotti Occupiers were Democrats and 6% were Socialists, fully 6% were Libertarians, 5% were Anarchists, and 1% were Constitutionalists–that’s 1 in 8 protesters polling as fiscal conservatives.

This certainly reflects my experience with my local Occupy and the others I’ve talked to. My local Occupy certainly had its Libertarian staples and its Ron Paul supporters; one lovely anarchist used to bring us vegetables from his garden for our kitchen. My friend who was participating in a Texas Occupation noted the same thing; he reported a sizeable Libertarian minority to his camp, despite the fact that that particular Occupation was spearheaded by a socialist organization.
How can this be? It’s actually less surprising than it might seem. If you listen to OWS talk and read their literature, a lack of welfare programs for the poor is only one of their major complaints. Other hugely key issues include the role of big money in politics, the ridiculousness of the privately run Federal Reserve determining our monetary policy (the picture at left is from a local Occupy protest, taken by the amazing Sasha Y. Kimel), and the problems with America’s interventionalist military foreign policy–all key complaints shared by Ron Paul supporters and others considered extreme fiscal conservatives.

About the only people I haven’t seen at Occupy protests–and the only ones who Doug Schoen didn’t find any of, either–are mainstream Republicans. One can speculate as to the reasons for that; perhaps the Tea Party has absorbed the Republicans’ protesters for change, or perhaps those who are both fiscal and social conservatives simply cannot find any common ground with Occupy Wall Street. Whatever the reason, all political stripes seem to be turning out to OWS in some numbers–except Republicans.

Let’s address another controversial component of Occupy Wall Street’s identity: the homeless people. Both the presence and absence of the homeless has been used by OWS opponents as grounds for criticism; when Zuccotti Park was said to have significant numbers of the homeless, the movement as a whole was labeled as selfish freeloaders. When rumors spread that OWS was refusing to continue providing food and shelter for a growing homeless population, they were branded hypocrites.

The homeless people are definitely there. They range from those who are both passionate and smart about the need for social and political change, to those who are apolitical and show up for the free food, shelter, and even free health care offered at some larger Occupy camps. And in a very real way, this has nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street’s political ideals–it’s inevitable that any all-inclusive movement with no membership requirements that offers these benefits should attract those in need.

Just how many of the Occupiers are homeless has been a point of debate. Both Zuccotti Park and my local Occupy protest have been painted by the opposition as “consisting mostly of the homeless people and drug addicts” who were already inhabiting our public parks. The numbers of homeless at some Occupations can be staggering–at one point it was estimated that up to 25% of the protesters making up one of California’s larger Occupy communities did not have any homes to return to.

This begs a lot of interesting questions. Some say the widespread participation of homeless people in Occupy protests proves that these protests are being waged by the “usual discontents,” including the “self-interested” and “demanding” poor. Others say that the larger numbers of homeless lend credence to OWS’s point–that must be something terribly wrong with our current system if so many Americans are living on the streets and flocking to any free shelter that’s available.

So far I have said very little about what OWS’s actual demands or ideology are. That’s because their demands aren’t as simple as a political agenda. Because of OWS’s unique protest style, the movement has become, in a literal way, not a list of demands, but a way of life. The protesters, many of whom show up expecting to do a few hours of organized sign-waving, immediately find something very different: the Occupy camps are in fact communities, with people living and working together.

The Occupiers make innovative use of scarce resources. At the time of our second general assembly, it started to rain; a tent was quickly assembled out of a plastic tarp from a nearby construction site dumpster, donated twine, and cardboard boxes torn-up, rolled, and telescoped into support poles. This is typical. The “recycled pizza box” sign style has actually become somewhat of a brand associated with OWS, and Occupy protesters often trade tips on how to be similarly thrifty and eco-friendly in daily life. (Photo at right also taken by Sasha Y. Kimel at our local Occupation.)

The Occupiers function through direct, egalitarian, participatory democracy. General assemblies patterning themselves after Zuccotti Park use the procedures that are also used at assemblies in other countries and in many co-op house meetings; there are silent hand gestures for agreement, disagreement, “please wrap it up,” “we’re getting off-topic,” and other opinions. There are no offices or heirarchy, and everyone can speak to the group; general assemblies have “facilitators” rather than leaders.

So it is true that Occupy Wall Street is not a set of demands or politicals, but a state of mind. These protesters are by and large completely fed up both with mainstream politics and our consumerist culture; they live by frugality, resourcefulness, and teamwork. They are tired of waiting for the government to act; the Occupy camps often function both as protest and do-it-yourself community service, with many camps striving to provide free healthcare, food, shelter, and educational workshops.

Politically, the Occupy movement remains hard to define. It’s not in line with either major political party; two-thirds of protesters consider themselves neither Democrats nor Republicans, and the two-party system was the single most common recipient of blame in Doug Schoen’s survey of Zuccotti Park. But, politically and culturally, they camps are encouraging discussion of previously taboo issues, and discussion of unconventional solutions from the level of personal daily life to national governance.

Some have suggested that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street need not even be diametrically opposed. Though the Tea Party’s social conservatism may not sit well with OWS’s egalitarian attitudes, both have expressed a distaste for an entrenched power system that’s creating laws that make no sense. And, as we’ve seen, not all of OWS’s goals are contrary those of fiscal conservatives; protesters all across the spectrum may be able to get behind a few of the same changes, like fiscal policy that will actually work.

And I think this is a very good thing. Do you?

Click here to read the entireity of Doug Schoen’s poll on the demographics, politics, and opinions of Zuccotti Park Occupiers.

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