Opinion » Ted Rall

Prequel to a Beginning

Why Occupy Wall Street still matters

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It was the middle of September. An ad hoc coalition of political groups, mostly left of center, whose members were mostly young, came together to express their opinions outside the officially approved two-party paradigm.

United by their anger and energy, these people held sit-ins. They marched. Throughout that fall and into part of the following year. They caught the attention of the media, inspiring activists around the country. In the end, the powers that be did what powers that be usually do: They sent in the cops.

One year later, it was clear to most that the Free Speech Movement at University of California Berkeley had failed.

Now we understand that the FSM was a prequel to a beginning. The FSM morphed into a movement that inspired widespread social unrest of the 1960s that centered on opposition to the Vietnam War. Everything that followed--feminists burning bras, gays rioting after the bust at the Stonewall Inn, America's withdrawal from Vietnam--had its roots in that "failed" movement.

One year after the first Occupy Wall Street encampments were set up, the movement is described as in disarray. Indeed, it's hard to remember how big OWS was. What happened?

"I think they're idiots. They have no agenda," Robert Nicholson, who works on Wall Street, tells The Los Angeles Times. "They have yet to come out with a policy statement."

"The movement [grew] too large too quickly. Without leaders or specific demands, what started as a protest against income inequality turned into an amorphous protest against everything wrong with the world," argues the Associated Press.

I was at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., and Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. I agree with Mikell Kober of Brooklyn, who was protesting in front of a Bank of America branch. She told a reporter that OWS is "about creating a public space where people could gather and have a conversation about the things that need to change."

Coming up with a list of demands isn't the point. Thinking outside the D vs. R box is. Now people know that electoral politics is theater. Real politics is in the streets.

The flaw in Occupy was its basic original premise: occupying public space nonviolently.

Occupying nonviolently is an oxymoron. If you decide to be nonviolent, you leave peacefully when the police show up to evict you. If you are determined to occupy public space, you must resort to violence in order to defend yourselves from police violence.

OWS ought to have decided whether it wanted to be nonviolent or if it wanted to occupy public space. If it chose nonviolence, it could have engaged in acts of resistance--flash mobs, demonstrations, strikes--that did not require defending encampments.

Though the physical presence of OWS is a shadow of its presence a year ago, the idea remains important--largely because the two major parties still refuse to engage the biggest problem we face: America's growing poverty.

"I don't think Occupy itself has an enormous future," Dr. Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University, told the AP. "I think that movements energized by Occupy have an enormous future."

Like FSM nearly a half century ago, Occupy is the prequel to the beginning.

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