Occupy Wall Street began some months ago as a movement to reclaim for the public the symbol of capitalism. In the wake of two economic collapses in three years, questions are being asked about the efficacy and sustainability of the capitalist structure. Such questions are legitimate, particularly when the system itself is seen to have alienated the many for the economic gain of the few.
Within weeks the network had spread to other cities across the US, then to Europe and Australia. Occupy protestors operate by taking up residence in the public centre of the city, claiming it for “99%” of the population. The movement is characterised by it lack of leadership and the consequent anonymity of its participants.
When confronted by police in New York and told that they were impeding pedestrian traffic, protestors replied in unison, “We are pedestrian traffic!” That’s the point. A society that has vested its power in capital and multinationals has lost sight of its pedestrians: the people who make up the vast population and whose voices have been drowned out by a fawning corporate media and governments quick to condemn dissent as being undemocratic, unrepresentative, disorganised or dysfunctional.
Many denizens of social media, true to form, have been quick to criticise, with statements generally dismissive of the movement’s capacity to effect social change. “Everyone has their gripes”, ran one tweet, “but since when did public occupation solve anything?”
When hasn’t it?
If the suffragists of the late 19th Century hadn’t occupied the steps of the Houses of Parliament and various other public places in pursuit of the vote for women, we may never have seen universal suffrage. If the women’s movement of the 1960s had not occupied the streets and public bars* we may never have seen anti-discrimination or equal pay legislation.
If the civil rights protestors in the US in the 1950s had not had the courage to occupy cities of the southern states, universities, schools and public transportation, we may never have seen racial justice – or a black president of the USA. If Indigenous Australians had never occupied the heart of the nation’s capital and established the Tent Embassy, we may never have seen land rights or an apology to the Stolen Generations – we may never have seen an end to the stealing!
It is true that everyone has their gripes and individuals sitting around nursing their private grievances are not going to see any change. But when the grievance is a collective one there is no greater statement than collective occupation of public space.
The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp occupied the grounds outside the eponymous US military base in England for 19 years in protest at the UK government’s decision to allow the US to house nuclear missiles on the site. The missiles were removed by 1991 as a result of the UN’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but the Peace Camp remained until 2000 when the protestors gained approval for a peace memorial at the site.
It’s a mark of a very smug and overfed society that can sit back and criticise others for taking a cause to the streets. Occupy Sydney and Melbourne protests have both ended in police using force to clear the occupation. The women of Greenham Common faced this situation again and again, but always returned to the camp and resumed their peaceful demonstration by simply being there.
So before you complain about over-inflated executive salaries, multinational corporations taking profits out of the country, banks skimming off more and more fees, governments in bed with industry lobbies, media in bed with everyone, ask yourself whether you’re prepared to be there: to occupy.
Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted dictum that “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”, only describes part of the story of social change.
Yes, a small group of thoughtful people can change society – but sometimes it takes a large group of really angry ones.