The recent “occupation” of Wall Street has shed light on what is becoming an unfortunate phenomenon in American society; the purposeless protest, the destructive demonstration, movements that serve only to draw attention to an issue without proposing any real degree of reform.
We saw it when unions occupied the Wisconsin capitol building, during the 2001 and 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Canada and Miami, the G-20 protest in Montreal in October 2000 and the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. Disaffected individuals are turning to increasingly violent, disruptive and thoroughly useless means of effecting change (presumably their goal).
Some seem aware of their lack of direction and, not surprisingly, seem to embrace it. Reuters quotes Jeremy Moss, a 41 Bronx native and mental health counselor who lived in Seattle during the WTO riots and feels the Wall Street protests are different, admitting,
“There’s a lot of naive idealism happening, what’s wrong with that?”
As Bill Buckley would say, “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality the cost becomes prohibitive”. Naïve idealism is fine, but it has no business blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The right of the protestors to demonstrate should not be disputed, nor should the fact that many of these individuals have been casualties of corporate downsizing and otherwise victimized by the ailing economy and are understandably angry with the institutions they blame for their job losses.
The problems arise from the means of protest and the “professional protesters” who have made the struggle their own. These individuals, who have made a career out of civil disobedience, are a rag-tag conglomeration of residue from the hippie era, students (who are clearly not taking enough credit hours), other Woodstock generation wannabes, and a myriad of others.
Regardless of the highly charged emotions of the demonstrations, the thousands of protestors camping out near Wall Street for weeks at a time are not there just because of the economy. Signs decrying everything from the execution of Troy Davis and U.S. foreign policy to marijuana and marriage laws are carried by the “occupying” force.
What’s more, in what could be called the “Egyptian tradition”, the internet and mass communication have transformed the Wall Street protests into what some are calling a “national movement”, spreading across the country as far as San Francisco. Indeed, some have questioned this use of technology, arguing that the “legitimacy” of the movement is undermined by demonstrators’ auspicious use of iphones and ipads, products of a $350 billion corporation traded on Wall Street.
Since mid-September, New York’s Zuccotti Park has become a cross between a commune and a refugee camp, with tarp tents offering medicine, food, books and anti-war propaganda, while on San Francisco’s Market Street, guitar circles and mediation sessions have taken over a half-block stretch in front of the Federal Reserve Building, according to Business Week, which also references the involvement of labor unions in the demonstrations:
In New York, members of National Nurses United, the profession’s largest U.S. union; Transport Workers Union Local 100, the biggest labor organization in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Working Families Party, a coalition of community organizations, marched to Wall Street from Foley Square, north of City Hall.
The constituency of some of these unions raises questions as to the motivation for the involvement; the U.S. is projected to experience a serious nursing shortage as the baby boom generation ages. So why are they marching?
It’s not just unions and young people either, activist groups like the “Raging Grannies” and the anti-war “Granny Peace Brigade” have also joined the fray, perhaps indicating a deficiency of senior-friendly entertainment venues elsewhere. With both unions and AARP members, because the aims of the “occupation” force are so broad, organizations eager for attention (warranted or otherwise) are jumping on the bandwagon.
For some like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the protests are more than an inconvenience; they’re a detriment to already fragile economic systems. As the Guardian reported the mayor saying on his weekly radio show,
What they’re trying to do is take the jobs away from people working in this city…If the jobs they are trying to get rid of in this city – the people that work in finance, which is a big part of our economy – go away, we’re not going to have any money to pay our municipal employees or clean our parks or anything else.
And after the protestors leave, the parks are going to need quite a bit of cleaning.
Nonetheless, Bloomberg’s point is the core of the argument against the demonstrations. What real impact will anger and frustration leveled at America’s financial institutions have? There may be some shuffling around in senior management positions, one or two CEOs or CFOs might be “thrown to the dogs” and publically indicted, but in terms of real, lasting reform, not much at all can be expected.
Some, like NRO’s Andrew Stiles, attribute the public reception to the occupation as a fundamental misunderstanding of and misguided anger towards capitalism, and a naïve conceptualization of socialism, a notion that is fostered in our institutions of higher learning.
Rather than attempt to criticize the economic system upon which our nation was founded, the protestor’s efforts would be better employed critiquing government actions that foster irresponsible or inefficient financial behavior, like that of Solyndra, the Buffet Rule, smart growth, and renewable energy subsidies.
Indeed, the power of public demonstration is a time-honored tradition of American society, and if properly executed, can help in the process of reform. The reason why the Wall Street occupation and its offshoots will fail is disorganization, both practical and ideological.
When the occupiers are forced to confront their critics, having no centralized ideological base and objectives (or rather, easily discernable objectives) they resort to violence and chaos, as evidenced in the FTAA, G-20, and WTO protests.
If reform needs to come, change can be achieved through the intelligent objection to policy; using economic principles and empirical evidence to make an argument can often be more effective in achieving change than guitar circles, meditation, or sleeping in a park.