The Power of Unstructured Protest (Part II)

Policeman pepper sprays protesters at UC Davis.

On Sept 28, when I first wrote about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I said I believed that the movement is:

  1. Better organized than people think;
  2. As much about being evocative as it is about being provocative; and
  3. That its central message (that the process is the message) will carry high resonance and should not be underestimated.

In my second post on November 15th (after the protestors at Zuccotti were evicted by the current administration) I wrote that I believed the protests were likely to escalate, and that stakeholders (elected leaders, police, institutional leaders, even the general public) would have to start choosing sides in ways that they hadn’t been forced to before.

Well, it’s been quite a week.  There have been plenty of pretty raucous protests around New York City (with over 250 arrests), significant Occupy actions taking place in cities around the US, and now a viral video of students being casually pepper sprayed at UC Davis.  Things have gotten uglier, and unfortunately I don’t think they are going to get better anytime soon.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss (but different)

Now here’s the thing.  I remember an old friend of mine who’s an active union organizer telling me a few years ago with a weary sigh:  You know, protests just aren’t what they used to be.  We have an understanding with the police.  We avoid confrontation.  We have planned routes, planned times, permits, speakers.  Our rallies are carefully staged events.  Real protest the way I experienced it in the 60’s is long gone.

Well, guess what’s back in fashion?  Good old unscripted, spontaneous, angry, intelligent and chaotic protest.  But there’s a catch:  as a society, we’ve forgotten how to deal with it.  Or, perhaps more accurately, we’re now seeing that we never really did know how to deal with it in the first place, and what we never learned is now coming back to haunt us.  Turns out, you can’t just casually pepper spray seated protestors practicing civil disobedience and expect a crowd of about 200 folks armed with digital cameras to go along with the program.  The viral video showing protesters telling police that the protesters are granting them permission to leave shows just how powerful the collective voice behind this action has become.  The people’s mic has entered our collective consciousness, and we know how to use it.

Occupy Movement Poll: Do You Agree w/ the Goals and Methods?

And there’s another catch:  I think the Occupy movement represents a significant advancement in social protest:  highly connected, carefully documented, remarkably resilient, and yet as flexible as a hot copperhead.  The escalation that we’re seeing in efforts to repress/displace/control the Occupy movement, on the other hand, have not advanced.  There are some new toys on the scene (did you catch the new pepper spray gun the cop wields in the video?), but the attitude looks awfully familiar and, oddly, old fashioned.  Kind of fuddy duddy, if it were’t so damn vicious.

Magic 8 Ball Says:  Concentrate and Ask Again

Time for prediction number 3:  We are far from done with the Occupy movement, and nobody really knows where it’s going to lead.  That’s the beauty of it, and it looks an awful lot to me like that’s scaring the crap out of the above-mentioned stakeholders.  I don’t think our elected/corporate/institutional leaders really know how to deal with our friends the Occupiers.  They all look so darn mad, don’t they?  Like a really pissed off parent.  With riot gear.  And right behind that anger they look really embarrassed, as if the rest of the world were saying: “Can’t you keep your kids under control?  They are very misbehaved.  You must be a terrible parent.”

We’ve already seen our leaders react by taking a swing.  Just a little smack to get those unruly beggars back in line.  And it really is coming off to the Occupy movement as paternalistic, short-sighted, controlling, and dismissive.  The Occupy movement certainly is not going to be dismissed, and that kind of leadership will only continue to stoke the fires of the resistance.

So, to our dear leaders: you won’t have the luxury of sitting across the table from an adversary in a suit as nice as yours, who understands the inner workings of the machinery you run, and who negotiates terms through a series of finely wrought horse-trades.  Nope.  If you want to come to terms with the Occupy movement, you’re going to have to get down and dirty.  Big, messy meetings.  Too many voices, too many opinions, too many impossible requests.  There won’t be a clean outcome.

What you need to build, or rebuild, is trust.  And that can only happen when people feel like equals.  Building trust and equality is about process as much as anything else.  And as process goes, it’s going to be mighty humbling.  Still, if you ask me, it’s the only thing that stands a chance of creating a sense of unity of purpose, and of engaging the collective voice of frustration the Occupy movement represents.