by Zainab Cheema (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 9, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1432)
Perhaps the most comforting thing in a revolution, in the midst of angst, bloodshed, and existential fear, is food. Steaming hot victuals, nourishing a tired body; the pleasure of breaking bread with compatriots in arms, cementing the fellowship you have formed under the hail of bullets, police batons, and clouds of tear gas.
Perhaps the most comforting thing in a revolution, in the midst of angst, bloodshed, and existential fear, is food. Steaming hot victuals, nourishing a tired body; the pleasure of breaking bread with compatriots in arms, cementing the fellowship you have formed under the hail of bullets, police batons, and clouds of tear gas. For the Occupy Wall Street protesters, armed with their V for Vendetta masks, witty posters, this too is a vital issue.
Most revolutionaries, including the ones of the storied Tahrir Square, have had to content themselves with a crust of bread on the go. It is a testament to the gastronomic sophistication of New York City, that the Occupy Wall Street protesters can enjoy haute kitchen cooked meals and chef offerings. Guardian writer Simon Jenkins has noted that donors are now providing “five-star” soup kitchens, “occu-pie” pizzas and a Sheraton chef with a “chez Zuccotti menu” of salmon cakes with dill sauce and “pasta bologna with grass-fed beef”. “Even the New York Post felt obliged to send its restaurant critic to taste the fare,” he notes. In a city known for both its dizzying fast food options and elite menus, no one said that a revolution had to proceed without the necessary gastronomic accoutrements.
Occupy Wall Street, the anti-capitalism movement that germinated in New York’s Zuccotti Park — since renamed Liberty Square in honor of Tahrir — on 9-17-2011, seized the United States and a healthy cross-section of the world by storm. Certainly, there is material ground for their anger. Protesters denounce a system that has unleashed mass unemployment, home foreclosures, government cutbacks to social services, and deadening corporate greed. They dub themselves the 99%, in recognition of economist Joseph Stiglitz’s study that 1% of Americans own 40% of the wealth in the country. Occupy Wall Streeters are the other side of the coin to the Tea Partyers (to which they have been frequently compared) — nostalgic for FDR-style liberalism, rather than classic conservatism. That is, they long for a strong central government nurturing its middle class, rather than a small government that minds its own business domestically and internationally.
Capitalizing the uber-visibility of New York City, Occupy Wall Streeters have advertised their economic discontent worldwide. This was one campaign, resting on the economic and psychic torments of the lost generation, which did not need Madison Avenue salesmanship skills. Solidarity protests have now mushroomed across towns and large cities in the United States, including Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and others. Vigorous protests are also developing in cities across North America, Asia, Europe, Australia, and other locations. On 10-15-2011, Occupy Wall Street’s facebook campaign for a Global Day of Action, lit the tinder to a minefield of economic grief across Europe, North America, and Asia’s more affluent regions.
Up to 175 people were arrested on 10-15-2011 for civil disobedience; 100 were arrested in Arizona and about 24 in Denver. The courtyard of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral has been filled with over 70 tents; hundreds of New Zealanders are camping out in Auckland’s Aotea Square; and Toronto’s St. James Park is now known as “tent city central”. Around 5,000 people marched on the streets in Toronto. Six hundred protesters gathered in Ottawa’s Confederation Park. In South Africa, about 80 people gathered at the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, while in Taiwan, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the Taipei World Financial Center. The temperature in Rome reached Fahrenheit 451, when over 150,000 people took to the streets and wrecked damage amounting to $1.4 million. (As a caveat, the bill probably came out to less than what Silvio Berlusconi paid his PR-team for damage control on his last scandal with the underaged Moroccan call girl).
Social anger is a leveling force, but it is not necessarily democratic. This is the anger of the First World — the indignation of the middle class sliding into the kind of poverty that US policies have inflicted on the nations of Asia, Africa and the Muslim East for decades. Once pulsing with the health of ruddy bourgeoise living, they are horrified to confront in their growing phantomization, the ghosts of the US’s neocolonial empire. So, pavements danced with anger, thousands gathering to channel their individual pains into a voice.
But since revolutions are eminently televised, Occupy Wall Street has afforded ample opportunities for a photo-op. Celebrities desperate to jump start their flagging careers — Kanye West, Susan Sarandon, Russell Brand, Nancy Pelosi, and erstwhile political rockstar Barack Obama (now a mere B-lister of the political world) — have all come by to get their photograph taken by the red-blooded revolutionaries. Michael Moore has mingled among the crowds like a left-wing messiah, his flannel shirts and truck driver’s hat camouflaging his million dollar credit cards, ever-eager to hawk his latest project.
The Democratic political machine too has joined in with a mighty paean of support and good will. “God bless them for their spontaneity!” Pelosi is cited on record as crying out. “The protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” declared Obama sanctimoniously. Of course, Obama, Pelosi et al’s spontaneity in signing over a trillion dollars of public wealth to the raiders of the US economy was muffled amidst this earnest enthusiasm. Even the Wall Street financiers (such as George Soros and Warren Buffet) are showering praise on them. Meanwhile, hiring for security corporations in New York City has gone through the roof.
The photo-op is crucial to the politics of co-option. If only Mubarak had thought to come by and get his picture taken with the Tahrir protesters early in the game — who knows what the outcome might have been? It is entirely possible that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi would never have come by his multi-billion dollar pot of gold, courtesy of Saudi Arabia, IMF, and EU.
Occupy Wall Street presents itself as nonaligned and indeed, has been mocked by conservative groups ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Fox News as a movement without a purpose. The criticism is rather disingenuous for the solemn hymnists of the Tea Party as the born-again rapture of America’s new political reality. Certainly, the Tea Partiers were just as aimless — otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible for the Republican Party to co-opt them to their platform of evangelical US militarism as effectively as they did. But one must take some of their critiques to heart — a number of them have called out the Democratic Party as capitalizing on this outburst of class anger to rake in electoral support and reverse the Republican win that had looked probable given the general ennui with Barack.
Occupy Wall Street becomes the Woodstock of the day, as the organizers refuse to channel their popular energy into concrete demands that can be used to pressure the political system. “The General Assembly is a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system,” describes Wall Streeter Nathan Schneider to The Nation, “[with] the hope… that every individual is empowered to make decisions and act as her or himself, for the good of the group.” When pressed on the issue, he noted: “they opted to make their demand the occupation itself — and the direct democracy taking place there — which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand.”
The result is predictable. The focus on Wall Street and economic injustice is splintering into demonstrations on multiple issues, as the movement’s shadowy steering committee re-routes the momentum into a feel-good, “We are the World” buzz that can only blunt the edge of class anger.
As political commentators have noted, the steering committee remains resolutely in the background, populated by individuals considerably older than the average protester, and who refuse to disclose their profiles to the media. When pressed to identify themselves, they offer pseudonyms such as Mary MIA and Tony POW, suggesting a military or covert-ops infiltration of the movement.
As for Occupy Wall Street, fists remain raised but the glare of the paparazzi cameras are sapping their strength to intimidate the political elite who raided their futures. “If you don’t have demands, you don’t have an identity,” noted Wesley Tarpley, “and if you don’t have an identity, Obama will come in and give you one.” As the Democrats gear up for the season of false promises in autumnal election time, the question remains — how then, does one disarm a revolution in the making? The answer lies in the lullaby for the middle class throughout the US’s years of prosperity — bread and circus.