The American Autumn

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The wave of protests in American cities has been variously panned as leaderless, rudderless, purposeless... but perhaps America is rediscovering the messy nature of democracy

WASHINGTON DC ~ Since 17 September, protestors have been encamped a block or two away from Ground Zero and Wall Street in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park, formerly Liberty Plaza, and the brio and fervour of their daily demonstrations are catching. The leaderless, purposeless (according to tut-tutting politicians and their useful idiots in the media) ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests have spread to dozens of cities around the United States, including the capital, Washington, DC, where on 6 October, a small but vibrant group of protestors took over Freedom Plaza (what else?) on Pennsylvania Avenue, a short stroll from the White House. The permit for the protests, organised by a group called October 2011, ran out on Monday but the protestors are going nowhere. Even if police remove them from the plaza—and given the footage of white-shirted NYPD on YouTube, pepper-spraying women in the face and using truncheons in a New York version of the lathi charge, DC police would do well to tread lightly—a sister protest, ‘Occupy DC’, has been underway in nearby McPherson Square for several days now.

The New York protests began with little press coverage, other than some sneering, but momentum has built to the point that Hollywood activists are writing op-eds in The Guardian, pop stars like Kanye West and pop star academics like the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek are paying impromptu visits, internet sympathisers around the world are sending free pizza, and newspaper columnists, perhaps abashed by their earlier inattention, are falling over themselves to tell us what it all means. A few days ago, several unions joined the protestors in common cause, boosting by thousands the number of marchers at the rallies and bolstering with institutional heft what some perceive to be the preciousness of bongo-playing protestors in twee, hippie-inspired clothing, the naïveté of cosseted children playing at being radicals.

A revelatory aside from these protests, and for me, as a journalist of sorts, a particularly dismaying aside, has been the reactionary response of traditional media. Archetypal of the tone has been the patronising cable news host whose disdain for the protestors’ intelligence is undermined by her own sloppy research and misleading reporting, or the business columnist who casually writes that he checked out the protests at the behest of a CEO concerned about bankers’ personal safety. It’s embarrassing. Journalists, as we in India know from the antics of our own leading journalists, see themselves as powerbrokers, happy to hobnob with the rich and influential at cocktail parties and happy to use their professional platform to toady to a worldview they have adopted as their own.

Media scepticism and politicians’ finger-wagging, mostly from Republicans who accuse protestors of being variously anti-American, anti-capitalist and plain jealous of those more successful, can be coalesced into a single criticism masked as a question: What are the goals of this hydra-headed protest; what exactly is the point? Certainly, the protests can seem all-encompassing, a litany that ranges from executive pay to bank bailouts to foreign policy to campaign finance to corporate power to the environment. On Thursday, at the Freedom Plaza demonstration, I saw a small, sober-suited man carrying a sign that read: ‘Stop Cheating Movie Goers!’

I thought he was satirising the protest, poking fun at the multiplicity of complaints in evidence at a protest that, like ‘Occupy Wall Street’, seemed little more than an opportunity for unfocused whining and freewheeling street theatre. Indeed, in a feature titled ‘What to Wear to a Protest?’ in the NYT’s Style section, a New York University performance theory major said she was protesting because she “like[s] the use of public space as a performative realm and… the combination of bodies in space.” But Kyle Mitchell, concerned about the fate of moviegoers, was in earnest. “Small theatre-owners like me,” he told me, “are forced out of business by large companies and unfair competition denies consumers choices.”

Far from satire, Mitchell’s complaint goes to the heart of the protests. The Americans who have been taking to the streets over the past couple of years, from both the left and right (the Tea Party, let’s remember, are unhappy about some of the same things as the ‘Occupy fill-your-city-in-here’ crowds), understand that the game is rigged, that in their country democracy, capitalism and plutocracy are apparently synonymous. A friend of mine calls the protests across America the ‘Gini protests’, after the Gini coefficient used as a measure of income inequality and which shows the United States as among the most unequal post-industrial nations, with the top 20 per cent of Americans earning nearly 50 per cent of the money. Much more astounding is the figure that the top one per cent of Americans account for 24 per cent of the wealth. This last statistic gives the ‘Occupy…’ protests their most visible slogan: ‘We are the 99%’, prominent on T-shirts, placards and leaflets in every city where people are marching.

Kevin Zeese, one of the organisers of the 6 October demonstration in Freedom Plaza, the date chosen to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the Afghanis- tan war, began a speech with the words, “Welcome to corporate-occupied territory.” His speech decried drone attacks in Pakistan, the “wanton killing” of civilians in Afghanistan, and the US’s status as the “largest empire in world history”, before pronouncing “economic insecurity” as the catalyst that would bring people to these protests, as the draft brought people spilling out onto the streets to protest the war in Vietnam. Zeese’s speech ranged widely, not limiting its focus to “end government by corporate rule”, which he has called elsewhere the “overarching principle” of the protests. It was as if the speech was calculated to set on edge the teeth of critics who call this and similar protests too broad, the rhetoric too stridently anti-American.

Milling around the Plaza were Zeese’s constituents, the wide choir to whom he preached: college students who wore Palestinian keffiyehs or had Egyptian flags tucked into the back pockets of their jeans to claim romantic but specious kinship with the young people who risked their lives in Tahrir Square; veterans of Vietnam protests from 40 years ago; women in eye-catching pink who represented an organisation of ‘women for peace’; curious tourists and passersby; a large contingent of grandmothers sporting T-shirts that read ‘Grandmothers for Peace’ or, more spiritedly, ‘Raging Grannies!’; people in costume: from a group garbed in the orange jumpsuits and hoods of Guantanamo Bay detainees, to one propelling a huge papier-mâché capitalist fat cat, and another carrying a giant, unfurled mock constitution that began ‘We the Corpo- rations transcending the boundaries of nations in order to protect us from the people…’; conspiracy theorists with signs that read ‘9/11 an Inside Job to Lead to War’ or ‘Investigate WTC 7’. This motley crowd, anywhere from several hundred to a couple of thousand strong, marched towards the Chamber of Commerce, a grand, Corinthian-column- ed edifice adorned with an enormous sign that reads ‘JOBS’. The crowd left sheaves of CVs on the steps as the chant rose, “Where are the jobs?”

The drums, masks, costumes and exhilaration of a crowd claiming their right to public space made for a carnival atmosphere. The Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described the medieval carnival as a ‘second world,’ a subversion of the prevalent structure. ‘They were the second life of the people,’ Bakhtin wrote in Rabelais and His World, ‘who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance.’ Hierarchies are suspended during carnival, and liberated from the social straitjacket, people begin using new, franker communication. This is evident at the open, nightly general assemblies of Zucotti Park, where no one is prevented from speaking for the period of time allotted equally to all speakers. New speakers are given their opportunities first. At the Washington protests, I saw a succession of speakers in Freedom Plaza clamber onto a (soap)box to share their views. Those critics who bemoan the lack of visible leadership, of spokesmen, do not understand the alternative space occupied by the carnival, the rejection of hierarchy. Of course, leaders will eventually emerge, clearly formulated goals will have to be stated, but for now it is the very shapeless, inchoate nature of these protests that is the point.

People who feel disappointment, dissatisfaction, fear at the lack of jobs and uncertainty for their future find a temporary antidote in the community feeling created by these carnival-like protests. Jordan Brinkman, a large, shambling young man with a dishevelled beard, told me he travelled to DC from once radical Berkeley, home to University of California’s most distinguished branch, to escape the “apathy.” “The toxic brew of corporations and government,” he adds, “inspired me to come here. All I want is justice and fair play.” Another young man, Andrew Batcher, canvassing people to support the protests, told me the Iraq war was the “catalyst that spurred [him] to become an activist.” He says the protests are attracting “lots of young people who are nervous about the jobs situation, who now believe in the need for people to have a voice, a say in their future.” As Brinkman says, “there are a million different reasons for people to be protesting right now.” In Zucotti Park, at Freedom Plaza, in parks and squares in Wisconsin, Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles, in cities and towns across America, can be heard the incipient rumble of Americans articulating those reasons.

By either design or coincidence, a Washington, DC, movie theatre is currently screening Black Power Mixtape, a compilation of footage from 1967 to 1975 shot by Swedish journalists enraptured by the charismatic, militant intellectuals of the Black Power movement. It is a tumultuous period in American history, in which demonstrators were fighting for social justice, fighting to extricate their country from an unpopular war. It is also largely a story of failure and disappointment, the ideals of the time curdling into the cynicism and unbridled consumption of the Wall Street-dominated 1980s. Whatever the fate of these protests, it is to the protestors’ great credit that they have found the energy to create their carnival. As their popular chant tells journalists and politicians, who, in their desire to appease their paymasters, appear to have forgotten, “This is what democracy looks like.”