By Jonathan Kraft
We have watched, some of us incredulously, over the last weeks as the small protest in New York’s Zuccotti Park has turned into a global phenomenon. Occupy Wall Street now lists 1,612 different “meetups” across the globe, spanning from the obvious locales (Berkley, Seattle, Paris) to the obscure (Islamabad, Fairbanks, Almaty).
The hardest part of Occupy is in deciding exactly what it is. We know that it is a movement against the unbridled world of high finance, a rebellion against the excesses which caused the global economic downturn, excesses that, according to the movement’s organizers, whoever they are, continue virtually unrestricted today. What we do not know about the movement is its broader significance. It could be a flash in the pan, or it could be the beginning of a dynamic social movement. It could be the liberals’ answer to the tea party, or it could be completely and totally different. It could be good for President Obama, it could be bad for President Obama. It could be a well-informed push for financial regulation, it could be a messy conglomeration of disparate agendas.
The problem is that the lack of information about what exactly this movement is reflected by the media coverage of it, meaning that consumers of information are fed a whole lot of conflicting viewpoints about what the meaning of Occupy actually is. This actually serves to discredit the movement, and even make it a laughingstock in certain circles. While the movement’s website actually tries to compare Occupy to the Arab Spring, to Tahrir Square, the fact is that those movements had a simple, central message which people could rally behind. Everyone knew what those movements were about, so when it came time to make a decision as to whether to support them or not, people were faced with a black and white choice. Here, Occupy’s lack of a coherent message may have served to attract masses to Zuccotti Park, and the rallying points of demonstrations in other places, but it also serves to place the movement at the periphery of society instead of at the center.
I recently visited Zuccotti Park to try and get a sense of what exactly the movement was about, and discovered that while a significant amount of protesters were gathered inside the park, just as many gawkers, spectators, and other curious passers-by surrounded them, walking around, taking pictures, and just looking in. Some protesters made cursory efforts to try and engage these “civilians,” but the divide was clear; Occupy Wall Street is a fringe movement, for those on the fringe of society, and without a clear and unified message, the “99%” of whom the protesters speak will remain passive onlookers.