How Occupy Wall Street Can Avoid Cooptation
How Occupy Wall Street protesters can avoid cooptation. By Lee Siegel.
Dear Occupy Wall Street Protesters,I haven’t felt so thrilled since I learned to ride a bicycle. You are the only authentic—what to call you?—response to what is really happening in this country to have come along in many years. You embody my dream combination of human qualities: honesty, anger and playfulness. Of course I am therefore waiting in dread for the other shoe to drop. One after the other, the most subversive developments in American life get comfortably absorbed by mainstream society (remember when “free love” struck fear into the hearts of the middle class?). You will find that the embrace of sudden new friends is the kiss of death. The cameras will nudge your simplicity into crudity. You will become harnessed not just to the hidden political agendas of other people, but to their professional ambitions. Think “Meet John Doe.” Think (to take an extreme example). “Taxi Driver.”
So here is some advice, presented anxiously, and also with the utmost modesty. (since you are the ones out there in the blare and the glare, in a situation that could go south at any moment in any number of ways; while I remain ensconced behind my comfortable desk.) We have spent decades scrutinizing, analyzing and lamenting the quick assimilation of everything under the sun: the media’s trivializations, commercialism’s paralyzing paw, the Hunger for Profits behind just about every human endeavor. Now is the time to test what we’ve learned.
Stay leaderless and anonymous. It appeared at first that not having a leader, a single face people could relate to, would be your fatal flaw. Now it seems to be the mark of your collective genius. The media would pounce on a leader, or leaders, and reduce your entire movement to a life story, a personality. Now they have nothing to grasp but your ideas, and your outrage. Then, too, leaders can be flattered, rewarded, ego-gratified and tamed. Once someone who speaks for you appears (gulp) on the cover of a national magazine, you’re done for.Don’t give them any kind of story. They’re waiting for it. They’re waiting for the guy who throws the rock, the girl who overdoses, the person who dies suddenly, mysteriously while camping out. Stay controlled. If the unfortunate or tragic thing happens, move on quickly with something dramatic and serious.Be inclusive. Protest the government’s indifference to the physical and mental health problems and the often-vulnerable financial circumstances of returning veterans. Cry out against the callousness toward the first responders to the Twin Towers on 9/11. Embrace everyone hurt by the greedheads and their political enablers.
Keep your nature mercurial. Drop leaflets off the top of Trump Tower. March (I love you for wanting to do this) on the millionaires’ (billionaires is more like it) homes. Have some real people with real stories—perhaps their faces covered with black hoods as though they were in government custody; you get the idea—tell their heartbreaking tales of losing their homes, their jobs, their uninsured loved ones to illness. Go faster than the nanosecond news cycle. You will drive the News Brain insane.Come up with a slogan a day. Something like (forgive my forwardness) “No representation without taxation.” Increase and diversify the velocity of your messages to a maddening pace.
Make the cameras come to you. Stay away from the talk shows, the TV studios. The other night I watched one of your protesters appear on the Charlie Rose Show with two famous economists and a prominent Harvard professor of public policy. It took only a few minutes before the three establishment figures, for all their obvious good will toward your movement, seized control of the conversation and started talking past your young man as if he wasn’t there. Before my very eyes, the status quo you are trying to change erased your attempts to change it. Come on, people. Charlie’s show is owned by Mayor Bloomberg, for heaven’s sake. Bloomberg has fought tooth and nail against the banking regulations you are calling for and has spoken out stridently against raising taxes on the wealthy. It's his cops who mace and pepper spray you and chase you down every time you demonstrate outside the park. Be savvy. We live in strange times.
For every unflattering image of you that they capture, put out a dozen meaningful ones on YouTube and other social media. You are what the Internet was made for. Make it the enemy of the mainstream camera.Keep the celebrities away. I’ve never known one who was able to resist an invitation to the summer homes of the bankers you so rightly want to hold to account. And when it comes to taxes, Hollywood is closer to your enemies than to you. Hollywood loves to tell stories about social injustice and economic inequality. But it loves money more. There is a Bono for aid to Africa. There is no Bono for higher taxes on the wealthy.More, more, more street theater! Menacing figures strangling ordinary people with the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Groups of people, stained with something that looks like blood, sitting in the middle of Park Avenue with their hands raised to the sky like beggars, crying “Insure us! Insure us!” Pregnant women marching on the banks with placards reading “Let Our Children Go… To College.” They want to reduce you to unflattering stories; instead, you overwhelm them with unforgettable pantomimes. That way you keep your message concrete and universal, and make conveying it an original experience all at once.Daily memos to the nation, simply, rationally, eloquently describing the conditions you abhor, and outlining the solutions you advocate. This will nicely counterbalance the spectacle of street theater.God bless the comedians, but don’t let them near you. They will reduce everything to their own shtick. Let’s face it. They and the bankers share the same accountants.Forget history. Everyone is talking about protest movements of yore; especially, inevitably, the counterculture of the Sixties. The main difference between then and now is that we live in an unbelievably self-conscious time, when everything seems to be an echo of something else. Everything seems to have quotation marks around it, and countless people now make their living by annotating reality. They will kill you with their pedantry. So ignore them. You are not the “left.” You are not “anarchists.” You are not “hippies” or “hipsters.” You are you. What people are really afraid of is something that has its own vocabulary and idiom because it strikes them dumb. The "experts" then cannot talk past you. Keep your true shape and form to yourself. Don’t let them pin their tired, self-serving definitions on you. Make your own history.Here is the hard part. You are arrayed against incredible power, which can come at you in different ways. It’s already starting. Bloomberg says that all the police surveillance and “protection” you require is busting the city budget. He says that he fears riots of London proportions. Democratic politicians are worrying that you are alienating moderate voters.
Behind all these rhetorical strategies is the simple fact of brute force. The rhetoric is meant to hide it. They can declare you a public menace and crush you whenever they want. Your job is to tear off the mask of manipulative rhetoric and show the reality of brute power. Show what lengths these people will go to in order to protect their privilege. Expose Bloomberg’s parti pris. To do all that, you have to break some minor laws. You have to sit in the middle of busy streets. You have to camp out in the lobbies of fancy office buildings and banks. You have to lie down in front of the mayor’s car. You must show that underlying the massive financial and political fraud of the past ten years is an intolerance of any real threat to financial and political interests. In other words, you need more than one angry top cop hitting you with pepper spray. You need—peacefully, humbly, decently—to make them spill your blood.
Bloomberg is afraid to evict you from the park because he is afraid his cops will hurt you if you resist. Make them hurt you. “Moderates” may well be horrified. But you will change the terms of political debate. You will have gone so far “left” that the life-sapping centrism that passes for liberalism today will no longer be acceptable.American consciousness is shaped by that one-tenth of one percent of the population called “pundits.” Ignore 99 percent of it. Yes, I get the irony. I bid you goodbye, for now, and Godspeed.