Why I’d Love to Stop Worrying and Love Occupy Wall Street

I love occupations. I really, really do. Not only can they be really fun (its like a sleepover! Where people talk about Žižek and Marx!), but I honestly think they can be an effective tactic for change – they are the right mix of political theatre and direct action, and given the right conditions and demands, can be quite useful.

I love occupying, I love occupations, and so what I’m writing here almost pains me to admit.

I do not like the Occupy Wall Street movement.

… Except it’s not that clearcut. I want it to be that clearcut, but it’s not. Let me try again.

I like what the Occupy Wall Street movement was – and more importantly, what it can be — but right now I think it is damaging to itself and a waste of good people power.

That’s a bit better.

OWS started out as an amazing idea. It was the first time in far too long that people in the US actually seemed to wake up, as people all over the world had been doing, and join together for a large action against the exploitation of anyone who didn’t make millions of dollars a year by those who do. I was overjoyed, honestly, to see it work — to see people travel to Wall Street, to see satellite occupations spring up all over the country (the world!) to show solidarity, to see it not die down after a week, a month.

But I think this amazing beginning has been lost in the weeks that have followed.

OWS is not doing enough. It is not interrupting the system. It is a waste of the power and enthusiasm that is shown by millions of people joining together to support it. And, perhaps most worryingly, it is not enough of a change from the current system to be worthwhile.

Occupations work because they force the issues into people’s otherwise comfortable zones. They force a change in the norm – people must see the occupiers, ideally change their daily routine (somewhat) because of the occupiers, hopefully take in and / or think about their message or demands. They are an interruption to the system, a way for people to say ‘Hey. We are unhappy about this and we want it changed.’ Its a way to take back space – space that is ours for the taking – and demand that our concerns are recognised.

Right now, OWS only has part of this equation. They have taken back the space – which is welcome, and was needed in the US system – but what are they doing with it? There has been no – or at least minimum – interruption to the daily system. Wall Street goes on, uninterrupted, around them. In other cities, where they have taken over public spaces with permits, with the system giving them permission to occupy the space that belong to the people, there is even less interruption, even less reason for the people passing by to think about their message.

The people need to have their voices heard. We need to be in the minds of the 1%, force our way in, remind them continually that we make the majority and we will no longer stand for their injustices, that we will not stand by while they prey on the lower classes. Right now, despite our occupations, it is too easy to ignore us. We are not a threat to their comfortable existence, camping out in parks or with permits in public places. We need to become one (while remaining a non-violent movement, of course).

And how can we do this? OWS has already solved perhaps the most important part of this problem – people power. OWS has millions of people across the United States (and the world) joining satellite protests, camping out day and night in uncomfortable (sometimes downright freezing) conditions, traveling and giving up their daily lives to spread their message. But what is that message? What are these hours of people power being used to do? Occupy a space that is all but ignored by those that need to hear this message most of all?

People are dedicated to this movement. People, en mass, want change, are willing to work for it. There are better ways to force the change of the system than using these needed people and supplies to make sure that countless parks and squares across the country are watched over by activists.

The satellite occupations that have sprung up all over the US are heartening. At first, it was so exciting to see that it wasn’t just a few hundred people in NYC, but rather people all over standing up and saying ‘We are sick of this! We want change and we are willing to work for it!’. But so many of them are small, my own local one included, and I know we have had a lot of trouble just keeping one person at the chosen occupied spot 24/7 for weeks, if only to make sure the food and other supplies people have kept there are safe.

Why are these occupations not being used to create further direct action, to get more people involved, to create a bigger disturbance to the 1%? I am not arguing against occupations, or even against satellite occupations — but if the movement is going to be broken up into smaller and smaller groups, could they not be doing something more to protest the system, something other than using all their energy staying warm and getting a few cars to honk in solidarity?

There has been a lot of discussion about how OWS is not a protest, but rather a movement, and that the goal of this movement is not to protest the current system, but rather to make a new system, to show that a new system that is fundamentally more fair can work and prosper. This is a lovely thought, but to this I say — what new system?

What is the system that OWS is creating? They have been careful to skirt the line of capitalist or anti-capitalist, leaving it unclear if they are demanding the end of capitalism or simply a fairer version of it (and if so — fairer to whom? To the 99% in the United States? To the 99% of the world, to whom a majority of USians , 99% or not, make up the 1%?). Until then, they play within the capitalist system, keeping its inherent faults and inequities — right now OWS is having very public disagreements about how to spend the donations they have been given, and similar problems are happening in many of the satellite occupations. The problems and complaints by people who feel their voices are unheard in the conversation about what to do with such donations might argue that such a ‘new’ society is not fundamentally different enough from the unequal system the US has now.

But this is all secondary to a larger problem of this ‘new’ society, one that highlights even more why this superficial change is simply not enough. OWS is not a safe, or a welcoming, space for many minority groups. As a women, I know that I have felt unsafe many times at various occupations, with my concerns easily swept under the rug or even mocked by the white, cis men who remain in charge. But my own experiences are nothing compared to what other minorities have faced – women have been told not to report their sexual assault (and survivors have had to face victim-blaming from members of the Occupy movement that sound no different than the message they receive daily from the 1%), many people or color do not feel welcomed or as if they are part of the movement (often because of reports of racist rhetoric gone unchallenged at several occupy events), members of the LGBT* community complain that they feel unsafe or as if their voices are unheard.

How is this society, this society still controlled by white, cis men with final say on where and to whom the money goes, much different from the one controlled by the 1%?

The OWS movement has so much going for it. Despite occupations and similar protest that have been going on throughout Europe and the world in the past year or so, nothing (with the exception of the Arab Spring) has gotten the positive response and press attention that the occupy movement has gotten. All the Leftist sources I’ve read for the last month, worldwide, are entranced with the moment, and even the mainstream media (after a notable blackout in the beginning of the protest) seems more supportive than critical much of the time. People back it. People believe in it. People are willing to put their own lives on hold to go join it.

This cannot be wasted.

OWS must decide what it is. Is it a protest? If so, if it anti-capitalist or does it support working within the capitalist system? Is it a movement, to build a new society? If so, how can it make minorities feel safe and included, to be truly different from the current society? These occupations must be in the faces of the 1%, need to use the people power and support it has rightfully earned to actually make change. This system needs change, and the people who are involved and supporting OWS can do so much — if it is handled correctly by all those involved.

Until then I’m afraid OWS really has become just a sleepover that features some discussion of Žižek and Marx. And while I find such sleepovers fun, I’m not sure they’re system-changing.

Mary Andes has just received her Masters in Global Health and Public Policy from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently trying to find a job and continuing to work for political change. She quite enjoys talking about Žižek and Marx. Read other articles by Mary.