Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some hesitancy to write about my thoughts on the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, and the reaction to them that is happening in the more conservative ends of our country. The reason for my hesitancy is that this is a place where my theoretical understanding of what is (and should be) happening with these protests, and my personal values as a Unitarian Universalist are not necessarily in conflict, but are certainly grinding a little as the gears meet.
Denizens of the Celestial Lands may remember a few articles I have written challenging the effectiveness of much of the “protesting” that happens in America, especially since the late 1960’s. The core point of the earlier articles is that such protests can only be effective so long as institutional power structures believe that they are only a visible expression of a larger, and more vehement emotional/political movement.
To get what I mean, I would recommend you read the earlier article and the comments that followed, but let me try to simplify it. For Mass Protest Movements to be effective, the institutional power structures must believe that such protests are merely one expression of a far greater threat to the institutional order. This threat can take many forms. It could be a threat of a mass-vote at the ballot box. It could be a threat of a change in public perceptions through the dedication and passion of the protestors. It could be a threat of a consumer boycott. It could be threat of a union strike. And, as has been most likely in other parts of the world, it could be a threat of some kind of violent uprising (or a hacking uprising, in the case of groups like Anonymous).
Without the protests validly representing some kind of threat of a more concrete nature, then such mass protests are too easily dismissed. Institutional power structures have learned not only that they can ignore such protests, but also that they are beneficial to the security of such institutional power structures, in that they allow for an outlet of energies against such institutions in a relatively harmless fashion.
What is different about the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the daughter-protests they have given birth to, is that there is a sense that this possibility of a more concrete threat exists, at least in the minds of many on the right of the political spectrum. There is confusion among the corporate targets of the protests, as well as among politicians, as to exactly what the protesters want. Not having a clear handle on the meaning of the protests, who is organizing them, and who the leaders are is threatening to institutional power structures, because it means they cannot react to said protests using traditional institutional means.
Institutions like to work with other institutions, because they understand each other. Corporations and politicians will work with established activist organizations because they share a common institutional framework. Groups can have a meeting, and come to a resolution… or at least share information and requirements.
When something appears to be happening without the control, support, and focus of an institution, it scares the pants off of those who understand the world through such an institutional lens. When there is no institutional structure to work with, how do you respond?
There have been three reactions to the Occupy Wall Street protests that I have seen in conservative politicians and media… and even more mainstream politicians and media. The first is to laugh at the protestors as individuals, and pretend they are not really representative of any larger emotional/political movement in the country. This has ranged from Donald Trump stating that the protestors are really motivated by people seeking dating opportunities, to the characterizations that these are just disaffected children of parents who work on Wall Street themselves.
For it is a threat to the institutional power structures if the Occupy Wall Street protests are identified as a small public expression of a larger political and emotional outcry in the American populace.
The second is a call for the Occupy Wall Street protestors to “Institutionalize”. Republican and Democratic politicians alike have been calling for the protestors to name a leadership, to form an organization, to settle on a set of demands, to name what will satisfy them and make them go away. Democratic politicians need to find out who to jump out in front of so they can be the “leaders”. Republican politicians need to find out who to either stymie in meetings and negotiations, or who to vilify in order to discredit the movement in the eyes of the public.
For it is a threat to the institutional power structures if the Occupy Wall Street protests remain an un-institutionalized movement that cannot be brought into “the game” as the institutions know how to play it.
The third reaction is that the Occupy Wall Street protests are violently dangerous to all that we hold dear as Americans, and they must be crushed before they bring our entire way of life to a crashing end… or if you listen to Glenn Beck, before these hippie, date seeking protestors come into the homes of normal Americans and Capitalists and drag them out, stand them up against a wall, and shoot them in the head. It is an attempt to brand the protests as the beginnings of an insurgency that should be crushed in its infancy in the interests of safety and security.
Amazingly, of the three reactions to the Occupy Wall Street protests, this is the one that I think is the most valid, although not for the reason that Glenn Beck stated. I do not think the Occupy Wall Street protests are going to turn into a violent insurgency against capitalism… unless they are oppressed with significant violence. In almost all cases of insurgencies beginning, their roots can be traced to violent institutional suppression of a mass emotional political movement.
Yet, all of these show that, unlike most other mass protest movements in America these last 30 years, the Occupy Wall Street movement has a significant chance at making a difference… because the institutional power structures do not know what they mean, have no institutional structure to interact with it, and are at least peripherally afraid that they might lead to violence. In short, they are a multi-dimensioned threat, and so long as that threat remains, the effectiveness of the protests remains.
So, the protests should resist calls to institutionalize. They should resist calls to codify their demands. They should remain more emotionally based than rationally based. They should resist attempts to be “led” by politicians and other institutional leadership. They should let it be known that this is but a beginning, and that the ultimate outcome of these protests rests in the reactions of institutional power structures to them.
For, as Gandhi said… “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you….
Then you win.”
Yours in Faith,