OWS: This young, intensely creative, “swarming” generation ignores what no longer works

Occupy Wall Street protesters don’t need old failed ideas, advice from columnists or Barack Obama: they’ve got Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

October 7, 2011 |
by Nick Turse

Photo Credit: Nick Turse

NEW YORK, NY — More than 40 years ago, he was in the thick of protests here. And here he was, again, joining in the Occupy Wall Street protests in Lower Manhattan — marching a pre-approved route inside a police cordon from the heart of the movement in Zuccotti Park to a pre-approved rally in a city square, where traditional activist speakers said traditional activist things to a crowd that, while it wasn’t lacking energy, did nothing that wasn’t traditional for city protests of the last 15 years.

An aging radical, his heyday was a time when, as the police beat them in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention under the glare of television cameras, American youth chanted in unison: “The whole world is watching.” (A phrase today’s New York City protesters resurrected when recently set upon by police on the Brooklyn Bridge.) He mentioned his thoughts to a group of us: The Wall Street protests would have erupted years sooner, if not for the election of President Obama. On the face of it, the analysis seemed credible. Earnest young Americans had put their faith in an dashing young president who seemed to promise hope and change, only to have their dreams dashed on the hard realities of expanding wars, moral comprises, and policies that cater to the rich at the expense of the “other 99 percent,” as the protesters term themselves.

As public intellectual Tom Engelhardt, who attended that same rally, has noted, the protests have almost nothing to do with President Obama. He might as well be a non-entity. Engelhardt wrote: “Amid the kaleidoscopic range of topics on those signs and in those chants and cries, one thing, one name, was largely missing: the president’s. In those hours marching and at Foley Square amid the din of so many thousands of massed people, I saw one sign that said ‘Obama = Bush’ and another that went something like ‘The Barack Obama we elected would be out here with us.’ That was it. Sayonara.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement has so much more to do with Mohamed Bouazizi, Bradley Manning, and Mona Seif all of them in their 20s, all of them breaking new ground — than it does Barack Obama. (And none of them were influenced by the American president in anything but the most indirect ways.) The nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, by most accounts, wasn’t watching and waiting for Obama to save them — although plenty of Americans no doubt were — it was watching similarly young activists in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Greece, Syria, Spain, Belarus and elsewhere. Back in the ’60s, Americans said the whole world was watching; today Occupy Wall Street activists are watching the whole world for ideas and inspiration.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement succeeds, whatever that means, it will be because of their youth, inexperience and ability to fend off cooptation and the sure-to-be-destructive advice of aging activists, political opportunists, and liberal commentators with their failed prescriptions, faulty analysis and hopeless notions of “proper” protests. It will be because of a worldwide movement of action-oriented young people to whom Barack Obama is less than an afterthought.

For 26-year-old Tunisian fruit peddler Mohammed Bouazizi, harassment by the police was the final straw in a short life filled with economic privation and few opportunities. Angry at having been mistreated by the local security forces, Bouazizi marched to the local governor’s office in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid to air his grievances. “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself,” he reportedly declared upon being rebuffed. Within an hour of his humiliation at the hands of the security forces, he had doused himself with gasoline set himself aflame in protest.

“What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?” his sister asked, after her brother died of his injuries. “A man who has to feed his family by buying goods on credit when they fine him … and take his goods. In Sidi Bouzid, those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live.”

Bouazizi’s actions sparked grassroots protests that spread from his dusty town to the capital, taking aim not just at the local repressive arms of the state, but the corrupt regime running the country, specifically Tunisia’s long-time strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The protests were also fueled, in part, by a trove of secret U.S. State Department documents allegedly leaked by then 22-year-old Army private Bradley Manning. “Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants,” one 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Tunis explained, offering confirmation of what Tunisians intuitively knew about their long-time dictator and his family. As one Tunisian praising the “youth revolution”put it:

And then, WikiLeaks reveals what everyone was whispering. And then, a young man immolates himself. And then, 20 Tunisians arekilled in one day.

And for the first time, we see the opportunity to rebel, to take revenge on the “royal” family who has taken everything, to overturn the established order that has accompanied our youth. An educated youth, which is tired and ready to sacrifice all the symbols of the former autocratic Tunisia with a new revolution…

That revolt quickly spread to neighboring Egypt where another long-time dictator was soon in the cross-hairs of disaffected youth with big dreams and faith in street protest predicated on holding the capitol’s great public space, Tahrir Square, running an alternative society there and speaking out in ways their elders hadn’t dared in the face of drawn weapons and live ammunition. It was something new, something they had to do for themselves.

“I was angry about the corruption in the country, [about the police killing of]Khaled Said and the torture of those suspected but never convicted [of being behind] the Alexandria Coptic church [bombing],” 24-year-old Egyptian activist Mona Seif told al Jazzera earlier this year.

“I realised this was going to be bigger than we had anticipated when 20,000 people marched toward Tahrir Square on January 25. That is when we saw a shift; it was not about the minimum wage or emergency law anymore. It became much bigger than this, it turned into a protest against the regime, demanding that Mubarak step down and that parliament be dissolved.

“On the night later dubbed ‘the battle of the camels’ when pro-Mubarak thugs attacked us, I was terrified. I thought they were going to shoot us all and get it over with. The turning point for me was when I saw the number of people ready to face death for their beliefs.”

When Adbusters set the Occupy Wall Street protests in motion, an early email proclaimed: “A worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future. The spirit of this fresh tactic, a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain, is captured in this quote [from Raimundo Viejo, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain]:

The antiglobalization movement was the first step on the road. Back then our model was to attack the system like a pack of wolves. There was an alpha male, a wolf who led the pack, and those who followed behind. Now the model has evolved. Today we are one big swarm of people.

“Leaderless” movements are nothing new. Ask an aging Yippie if you can find one. But old movements weren’t the model. “Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum – that Mubarak must go – over and over again until they won,” read Adbusters’ missive. Obama was a target for demands, nothing more. He wasn’t a fallen messiah, just the guy in office at the moment. He was never one of “them” and I honestly don’t think the young women and men camping out down in Zuccotti Park ever thought he was.

“Where the movement falters is in its demands: It doesn’t really have any,” a commentator from the New York Times recently wrote in a column filled with advice that the Occupy Wall Street protesters make conventional, concrete demands, even while calling their slogans “silly” and admitting that he doesn’t share the dreams or vision of many, probably most, of them.

For many years, protesters in New York City have marched up and down Manhattan Island in police-approved marches. They have, often enough even marched to Foley Square, to be similarly penned in along the way, by similarly-clad cops to attend rallies so similar to so many others, that most of them probably couldn’t recall the year, the reason, or anything that set one apart from another police-approved march that led nowhere.

Perhaps it’s because the geriatric radical fervently supported Obama and was fooled by him that he wants Occupy Wall Street to share in his shame, just as the New York Times columnist would be more comfortable if the movement issued professional-looking position papers, and yesterday’s activists are content to march around, flanked by cops to attend yesterday’s rallies. Why would the Occupy Wall Street protesters listen to any them when they’re so dissatisfied with the world handed down by all of them? And with so many young activists from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria overturning the established order to look to for inspiration, why would they base anything they do on America’s floundering, six-war president?

The antiglobilization protesters used to say “Another world is possible.” The Occupy Wall Street movement is living it in Zuccotti Park. They don’t need to look to yesterday’s protesters or Barack Obama; they’re watching the whole world.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and a senior editor at AlterNet. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso). You can follow him on Twitter@NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
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