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Protests, Revisited

Jury duty has put me down around City Hall for a few weeks, meaning I’m closer than I’d ordinarily be to the occupation on Wall Street. I’ve wandered by a few times after we’re let out at 5. Today I spent more time there, trying to figure out how I could possibly be useful.

Useful, in a protest setting.

I found out early in the anti-globalization protests of the late-’90s-early-Aughts that I’m really uncomfortable in throngs of people. My gut reaction is to run clear of them. It’s maybe not a claustrophobia thing. Maybe it’s a manifestation of privilege. I dunno. I hate walking behind slow people, want to kick out or thrash when I’m boxed in by a crowd. Being in an immobile mass makes me feel useless. Inefficient?

It’s one of a few reasons I always gravitated to communications roles and to the Independent Media Center. I prided myself on being able to accomplish things by writing (wrong as I may have been) and felt more like I wanted to deliver a clear message to a lot of people than be one of a lot of people chanting. Back in 1999 not many people had cell phones, so there was also a lot of use for someone who could help with walkie-talkies and dispatch. I liked that, too; I had done it for the Humane Society officers in my hometown, and it felt familiar. And safe. More comfortable in the crow’s nest, hearing from the streets by radio, being able to send directions back to guide protesters away from police kettles, cordons, or tear gas.

So much has changed. There’s barely anyone who doesn’t have a cell phone out there now, not to mention laptops and tablets. Always on, even streaming video live. No need to return to an Independent Media Center to take days to edit, or even to upload. No need, even, for the heavily-worked-on IMC website backbone, which was unlike anything else on the web at the time: letting anyone post anything, including images and video.

Read that again: unlike anything else on the web. Letting anyone post anything. Images and video. How soon we’ve come to take all of these capabilities for granted. Just a dozen years.

This is the thing that gets me as I walk through Zuccotti Park, the sleeping quarters and organizing center and mess hall and library of the protest: the decentralization. There’s a few signs marking information desks, and a few areas with a vague feel that they’re for a single purpose, but mostly the space is just wall-to-wall milling people. It’s not clear where “the leaders” would be. It’s not clear who’s doing much of anything. At an Indymedia center, there were very definite spaces for things like dispatch and website coding and video editing and meeting, and you could mill around and from the feel of how people dealt with each other you got a sense of who kind of had more influence than others.

This new protest feels decentralized. OK, maybe I wasn’t there long enough to really grok the social structure. Something about it, though — being outside? People wandering through gawking? No amplification system? People sleeping everywhere? — makes it feel structureless. And like the brain of the movement, its executive function, isn’t going on in that space, per se. Like it’s accessible, but someplace else.

Like the Internet? The Internets.

(And even on the Internet it’s hard to find the single brain of this protest. Only a loose network of brain pieces. A cloud. And you know? Can’t say that’s a bad thing.)

We thought Indymedia was helping make the first Internet protest. But it wasn’t exactly. I think the anti-globalization movement was in the process of shedding the skin of something older.

I’ve been trying to sum up this feeling for days. I was at the occupation site today when Naomi Klein was speaking. I was elsewhere in the park — sitting in on a meeting about “direct democracy,” wanting to know what the zeitgeist thought that meant this time around. (Still using jazz hands to applaud silently. Still aiming for consensus. Still striving earnestly to right past societal wrongs by structuring in affirmative action, bless ‘em. Over the polyrhythms of a more-competent-than-usual drum circle, I asked the kid who was leading the direct democracy training what the history of the process he was outlining was. “Have you heard of the Rainbow Gathering? The Radical Fairies movements down in Tennessee and elsewhere in the South?” he responded. I confess my disappointment. I was hoping to learn we shared a procedural heritage with Egypt and Algeria.)

Klein apparently had the same struggle as everyone else to be heard under the amplified-speaker ban, but she’s written up her piece for the Nation. And she has said everything else I might want to say.

About the ephemerality of the anti-globalization mobilizations, and how it never served local communities. (Would that she had talked about how the tech bubble of that moment fueled the well-meaning but entitled skilled elite who descended on cities during those protests. Maybe that’s someone else’s story to tell.)

About how much harder it was to communicate a message about the abuses of corporate power during an economic boom cycle. It seems so much easier, by contrast, to communicate “the 99%.” You can even say it to police officers and feel like you’re getting some sympathy. That greedy 1% of the population does what they want, and do they ever ask what we need to feed and educate our children, to live in dignity and health? They take money from our government and never give back. It’s easier to communicate to people now.

About how this movement seems to her, as it does to me, to have no Black Bloc: no wing intent on doing violence (and indeed, @AnonyOps and other outlets have worked hard to spread messages to quell potentially violent actions.)

About how we lost everything we’d built in that earlier protest season in the militaristic hysteria about terrorism after 9/11.

About how this movement, like the one at the millennium, like the one in the 60s, are about “changing the underlying values that govern our society.”

Klein writes:

A few final thoughts. In this great struggle, here are some things that don’t matter.

§ What we wear.

§ Whether we shake our fists or make peace signs.

§ Whether we can fit our dreams for a better world into a media soundbite.

And here are a few things that do matter.

§ Our courage.

§ Our moral compass.

§ How we treat each other.

I’m glad Klein wrote these things I was having such a hard time summing up myself. It’s welcome to hear someone from an earlier movement, any earlier movement, speak so lovingly and encouragingly to the next people picking up the torch. (There were moments, at Hampshire and other times when my generation spoke to the Woodstock generation about our own concerns, when we were patted on the head, called cute, given a designated building to take over, reminded how important were the gains won by protests in the 60s. As if they were the only real protests, ignoring also Reagan-era protesters, ACT UP, and their peers.)

It is my hope that what our Naomi has written is remembered as one of the great humanist documents of our time.

(As if writing matters. As if, in the flood of information we swim in, one statement can make a difference.)

One Comment

  1. SC wrote:

    Hey, G. I thought Dancing Sausage might have a few thoughts on OWS and I was right. And I missed Naomi’s piece, thanks for the link. The few times, I’ve dropped by, I’ve felt, well, ancient but also encouraged by the general spirit of the place. My office isn’t too far from OWS, if you go again, lemme know and I’ll join you.

    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

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