By Michael I. Niman
It’s like the nation just woke from a decade-long coma.
The last time we shared consciousness was in September 2001. The November 1999 “Battle in Seattle” birthed a determined and seemingly unstoppable national movement for social, economic, and environmental justice. Over the next two years, activists ranging from religious and union leaders to black bloc anarchists fanned out into a tapestry of communities, giving lively, impromptu lessons on global trade and the assorted macroeconomic nuances of corporate domination. Where a previous generation’s activists worked the streets with simple slogans like “Stop the War,” the Seattle generation tasked themselves with educating and angering the public about the complex array of injustices brought on by corporatist, neo-liberal global trade pacts foisted on a dazed world by shadowy organizations with acronyms like IMF and WTO—all the brainchildren of neo-classical economists who plotted their hegemonic schemes in innocent-sounding places like the University of Chicago.
Political activism had finally morphed from simple sloganeering into a radical university of the streets. Complex as it was, people were understanding the web of connections between war, Nike, unemployment, sweatshops, ecocide, Wal-Mart, debt, genocide, Wall Street, and our recurring nightmares. And with this education came the knowledge to identify one’s enemies. While we were hitting the pavement running with hopes and dreams, corporatists were also active, plotting their upcoming consolidation of power, which culminated in George W. Bush’s controversial ascendency to the White House in January 2001. The nation was heading for a full-blown showdown as that year progressed.
Increasingly boisterous demonstrations over the summer of 2001 built the movement that began in Seattle into a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, gaining momentum for what was to be an autumn of resistance later in the year. As September began, a consortium of major news agencies was readying the release of a comprehensive, eight-month investigation documenting the theft of the previous year’s presidential election, and undermining the corporatist hold on the White House. Things were coming together. People felt that perhaps it was safe to once again dream.
Then came September 11, Fox News, and a decade of tweets and nightmares. We were suddenly in a war that clearly would be endless. We didn’t quite know who this war was against. Everyone was either with “us” or with the “terrorists” and “evildoers.” Police started beating us in the streets whenever we dared to dream in public. Unlike the Battle of Seattle, where courts took sadistic cops to task for their criminality, it was suddenly open season on America’s infidels. New phrases and words forced their way into our lexicon: “Homeland Security,” “Free Speech Zone,” “Indefinite Detention,” “Enhanced Interrogation,” “Preventative Detention,” “Eco-terrorism,” “Economic Terrorism,” and “Pre-emptive War,” to name a few. There would be no autumn of resistance.
The years that followed are what we now often refer to as the Lost Decade. Social and economic inequality regressed to levels not seen since the 1800s, as corporatists, their media, and political lackeys worked to roll back the social gains of the 20th century. “Deregulation” has emerged as a mantra for corporate plunder. Environmental destruction neared a tipping point as ersatz GreenTM products flooded the market, easing our uncomfortable consciences as we medicated our unease with yet more consumerism, growing both debt and market bubbles while consuming our planet to death. Meanwhile, our intellectual discourse shrunk to the point of fitting inside a 140 character Tweet or incoherent two-thumbed text (“2thum txt”).
Four weeks ago this all changed when a few hundred demonstrators converged on Wall Street with no formal organization, no leaders, and no end date for their open-ended protest. As #OCCUPY WALL STREET began, the mass media did its best to ignore this American incarnation of the Arab Spring. Day after day the alternative media covered the protests, which had grown to be many times the size of pro-corporate “Tea Party” events that typically enjoy the national media limelight. Brutal police attacks against protesters caught on camera and posted to social media sites went viral in the blogosphere, eventually forcing their way into TV newscasts.
Over the course of the last month, while actions in New York tripled in size each week, the movement went national, then international, with #OCCUPY events in more than 600 American cities, towns, campuses, and villages this week, spanning 45 states, with the largest demonstration to date drawing approximately 20,000 people—all before the movement’s one-month birthday.
And at every step in this viral movement’s growth, it has reaffirmed its dedication to remaining acephalous (without leaders) and nonhierarchical. Tweet this word: acephelous. Post it, paint it, text it, or scream it. Maybe even add it to your Microsoft Office dictionary. It’s what makes this movement unstoppable. There are no leaders to co-opt, harass, arrest, or kill. #OCCUPY leaders will never sell out their movement because they don’t exist. They will never raise money for a hope-killing presidential candidate or call on you to compromise your values just as you begin to feel empowered. And there is no hierarchy that claims to speak for you, while silencing your voice. There is no one to stop this movement once it gains momentum. Acephalous!
It’s also important to note that, essentially, no one started this movement. Sure, Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine planted a viral seed, naming the initial event, #OCCUPY WALL STREET, and setting a date for a vague (bring a tent and plan to stay) event to take place in a different country 3,000 miles away. Adbusters is as obscure as it is controversial. The magazine is hostile to labor unions and once published an anti-Semitic screed. The movement we’re seeing, however, took on a life of its own, essentially fueled not by Adbusters’ original call to action but by Wall Street’s continuing greed. The largest actions to date were supported by unions, and last week hundreds of religious Jews showed up in New York’s financial district on Yom Kipper, the Jewish day of atonement, to hold their religious observance where atonement was most needed. While Adbusters deserves credit, perhaps, for lighting the fuse, they are no longer a significant part of this story. This is what democracy looks like: It’s acephalous. The movement belongs to those who are on the streets moving it.
Sure, acephalous means #OCCUPY will suffer some rough and embarrassing moments, as there always are in an inclusive movement, but in the end, it’s going to be effective in moving the ball, as similar movements have been in Tunisia and Egypt. And yes, that’s another inspiration for this winter of democracy. Unlikely as it would have seemed just a decade ago, America is importing democracy from the Middle East. The biggest challenge now is to not let the Democratic Party co-opt this movement like the corporatists have done with the Tea Party.
#OCCUPY isn’t being led by a charismatic figure or dogmatic political organization. It’s being led by a shared passion—that the United States should be a small “d” democratic nation governed by principles of social justice. This is the antithesis of what Wall Street and the corporate power structure behind both major political parties represent. With a passion, and a highly visible target, who needs leaders to sell you out? Even the Associated Press, the establishment news stalwart that soldiered on for two weeks telling us there was no real message behind the movement, finally conceded that yes, people do have a coherent message and a reason for taking to the streets. Last weekend, AP reporter Cristian Salazar identified that message: “That ‘the 99 percent’ who struggle daily as the economy shudders, employment stagnates and medical costs rise are suffering as the 1 percent who control the vast majority of the economy’s wealth continues to prosper.” Even Forbes ran this story, bringing the message that Wall Street insiders have been reading for weeks on street placards to their iPad screens. The revolution has been televised.
The New York group used the difficult but uncompromisingly inclusive process of group consensus to draft a list of grievances. (See the sidebar.) Their demand is simple, and it’s directed not at government, per se, but at us, calling on us to “assert [our] power” and ultimately change the system that perpetuates these injustices. Their message: “Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” It’s up to us, everywhere, to take it from here.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of communication at Buffalo State College. His book, People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia (University of Tennessee Press, second edition, 2011) examines acephalous social movements and the temporary autonomous zones of resistance and celebration that they create.
Return to mediastudy.com