Sous-Veillance On Occupy Wall Street

The following was contributed by MYD member Jon Reznick:

© 2011 Jon Reznick - Young Occupier

I am writing about this topic after spending roughly 15 hours at Occupy Wall Street over a few days in the past two weeks.

I have attended and photographed numerous major protests and rallies in the NYC area, and my first piece of political photo-journalism was in fact the anti-war protest of February 15, ought-three, right here in NYC. This year, I have been fortunate enough to witness youth protest in Spain, and political turmoil in Haiti, in addition to the many happenings here in New York. To wit, I have 17 pictures of Reverend Billy from this year alone, and you all know every rally and protest goes on that dude’s calendar.

And despite all these happenings I have taken part in and witnessed personally, I still have yet to see for myself anything as epic large as I did in February ’03. We turned out in ludicrous numbers, we ended traffic on both axes on every avenue east of Sixth to the river, from what seemed like 38th street to the mid-50s.  There were square miles of people.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu was among the many distinguished speakers, and my understanding is that this was going on in numerous other cities around the world.

Mind you, turnout at an event is not the only necessary characteristic of a successful movement. The 2003 anti-war effort had leaders, cash, coherency, and utter clarity in its messaging. Slick posters were prepared in advance. For all its grandeur, its sprawl, and its participation by mainstream Big Organizing types (Rev. Billy was there, along with MoveOn), it failed utterly and miserably. It failed because it was staged in February, 2003, and the House and Senate had already voted to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein refused to give up WMD as required by the UN. This happened in votes of 296-133 and 77-23 on October 11, 2002. It was on the Friday of this very week 9 years ago that they did so, in fact.

© 2003 Jon Reznick - An arrest is made of a violent anti-war protester in 2003.

The demonstration had no effect because it could be ignored by the powerful. And then, in 2004, Democrats did not even offer a nominated candidate who had voted against the war. Kerry and Edwards stood by their votes authorizing invasion, as did every Democratic primary candidate on stage who had been in the senate during those years. 2008 was little different, given who the candidates were apart from the one guy, our President.

In this respect, Occupy Wall Street has already figured out that to succeed, it cannot be ignored. This is where making it a literal occupation (something I admit I did not cotton onto at first when I heard about it) is a powerful idea. Our ’03 protest shut down some traffic and spawned some arrests, but was forgotten, except as a day some of us spent in the wicked cold. Even last year’s Stewart/Colbert (in)sanity rally, which drew almost as large a crowd, and snarled the nation’s capital and received far more coverage and anticipation, and which had leaders, brands, and cash, had no outcome at all except, perhaps, merely to show that frustration with our politics is a non-partisan issue.  That, at least, was a beautiful fun day.

Comparisons to Tahrir Square are easy to make because the movement draws its inspiration from the tradition most notably continued at Tahrir this year. But I think they are facile comparisons. The stakes are very different, as are the players. Most importantly to me, so are the necessary conditions for endgame.

Comparisons to the Tea Party also abound, as that movement is American home-grown, and because it is prone to airing public anger in a superficially similar fashion. By contrast, the Tea Party worked specifically to upset political machines and to align heaps of candidates and electeds to them through fear of a whipped-up and rowdy base. So they figured out how not to be ignored, but also how to influence politicians and political outcomes. Occupy Wall Street will not have an official Caucus in Congress within 2 years, if ever. That’s not the point of it, and I do not say this to denigrate it. I say it because it is not a good comparison even to be making. At all.

But that is where a lot of criticisms of the movement lie. Entrenched power is interested in the accumulation of votes and capital but #OWS is not trying to topple a government, and it is not even defined by a concise set of demands. They are not trying to move votes on a bill, demand a resignation, or even raise a million dollars, stuff we are actually more used to. If not for its quality as a physical occupation, it could be ignored. I have spoken with a handful of public officials, members of the City Council in particular, about why most politicians are ignoring it or making bland statements even now, and this is why. Nobody can see a clear connection yet to outcomes in their world, though they know one may be coming.

#OWS is a powerful statement on the failure of that system to protect the public good and to provide a future of meaningful prosperity, and so it exists in the interstices of typical power: by retaking the public square and turning it into a venue for innovation in organizing and collaboration, creating new energy thereby. Inadvertently, I think the movement is saying something about the future of work, collaboration, and socialization in a world without real job creation or companies that care about us and give us neat watches after twenty-five years rising in the ranks.

What is the point of Occupy Wall Street? To occupy, clearly. And the occupation will end when morale improves enough to go home. Or it will end when the occupation is broken by winter. The fact that it did not end today means it will not be wiped out by NYPD unless vigilance is abandoned by the occupiers.

© 2011 Jon Reznick - If you hold a protest, Rev. Billy will attend.