The Students for a Democratic Society was a group of mostly college and graduate students who caught national attention for seeking idealistic changes in the United States in early 1960s. The group was concerned with combating entrenched racism, the nuclear arms race and economic inequality. Though overtly idealistic, the SDS has been credited with providing a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement that has now become inextricably linked to the 1960s.
Similarly, the Occupy Wall Street movement has caught the imagination of the United States and the world. Globally, Occupy protests are springing up, protesting economic inequality and a variety of social injustices. While the protest has clearly demonstrated its staying power, some features of the movement need to be critically discussed and defined.
Occupy has outlived its initially predicted longevity, so it has been expected to list its concrete demands. In fact, Occupy’s insistence on not reifying its objectives may be one of its greatest strengths. The ambiguity of the protest is perfectly captured in its maxim: “We are the 99 percent.” It is this trait, as an Oct. 26 CNN article argued, links the movement to the best of “1960s America.”
If the Occupy movement were to list concrete demands, it could well be pigeonholed. Then, the potency of the movement is reduced to simply a list, as opposed to something greater: an idealistic shift in American politics.
No doubt, cynics and critics will marginalize the movement as quixotic, yet it is this appeal to idealism that eventually gets grounded in tangible action. As the aforementioned CNN article further explained, the Civil Rights Movement began with frustratingly vague maxims. That certainly sounds familiar.
More poignantly, the movement highlights the harrowing plight of the homeless. As easy as it is to criticize the top one percent, it is as easy to forget the bottom one percent. As an Oct. 31 New York Times article pointed out, protesters generally are alienating the homeless protesters. Granted, some are likely there for shelter and food, yet they are protesting against the same system as every other protester.
There are two broader lessons here: the movement must not in wholesale alienate a powerful voice that backs the sentiment of the movement. That such a massive portion of our citizenry wallows without a home can serve as proof of the legitimacy of the movement’s grievance.
Second, the protest intrinsically opposes the stereotype of the homeless as lazy and improvident; instead, it generally accepts them as people who find themselves unable to navigate the institutional labyrinth of inequality.
As a Nov. 3 Wall Street Journal reported, Occupy protests are being linked to violence.
The article details: “Occupy Wall Street protesters had just half a day to celebrate what they saw as their biggest victory so far: a daylong gathering in Oakland that drew thousands of people and led to the peaceful shutdown of the nation’s fifth-busiest port. Then… vandalism began.”
The article detailed most of the protesters nationwide, but most particularly those in Oakland, disavowed the acts of vandalism and violence. But there is not a uniform conclusion.
We turn again to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal: “This thing has to escalate so people see the violence and who is protecting the interests of the corporations,” said Denver protester Dwayne Hudson.
Indeed, it may well be the invocation of violence that sparks genuine action in favor the movement. At the very least, violence could be an attention-getter for a movement that, at face value, seeks to challenge dominant economic systems and flagrant income inequality – certainly not an easy order.
The Occupy Wall Street protests have the capacity to enact real change in American politics and in the American psyche. Of course, how we measure the success of the movement will vary. One thing remains clear: protestors should ignore charges of “over idealism” and think, discuss the features and impacts of the Occupy protest.
After all, as the Port Huron Statement from the SDS eloquently said: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”