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Wednesday, November 23, 2011 / Duncan Forgan

I Agree, but Occupy it How, and for What?


It’s hard to know what to say about Occupy Wall Street (and its sister movements across the world) that hasn’t already been said.  That’s partially why I haven’t written anything about it yet.  As the movement settles into its third month of action, making its way to Washington D.C. through seemingly horrific scenes of apparent police brutality, it continues to undergo sustained attacks from the conservatives (with a lower case c).

I’ve been pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, to be honest.  I think the reason I haven’t been able to come to a conclusion about them is because of how nebulous the whole thing is.  Apart from the admittedly pithy “we are the 99%”, I haven’t been able to divine the purpose of #OWS.

Historians will definitely remember 2011 as the year of protests.  The Arab Spring has changed the face of political discourse, and reignited the passions of disaffected youth.  Even now, the recent events in Egypt suggest a second revolution in nine months, as the military begins to cave to sheer force of civil will.  Kindled by all this fervour, economic catastrophe has compelled many to protest the actions of bailed-out banks and corporations, and to generally express anger about the machinations of modern capitalism.

And of course, the conservatives bared their teeth immediately (surprised?).  The recent horrible events at UC Davis have shocked the world, but left Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly thoroughly unimpressed, claiming that pepper spray is merely “a food product”.  Wikipedia describes the effects of pepper spray thus:

For individuals not previously exposed to OC [pepper spray] effects, the general feelings after being sprayed can be best likened to being “set alight”. The initial reaction should the spray be directed at the face, is the completely involuntary closing of the eyes (sometimes described as leading to a disconcerting sensation of the eyelids “bubbling and boiling” as the chemical acts on the skin), an instant sensation of the restriction of the airways and the general feeling of sudden and intense, searing pain about the face, nose and throat. Coughing almost always follows the initial spray.

Subsequent breaths through the nose or mouth leads to ingestion of the chemical, which feeds the feeling of choking. Police are trained to repeatedly instruct the target to “breathe normally” if they complain of difficulty, as the shock of the exposure can generate considerable panic as opposed to actual physical symptoms.

The burning reaction lasts, in some cases, for up to 4 hours. Intense headaches can result in some situations. On occasion seasoned offenders have complied immediately after production of OC spray cannisters, often requesting TASER usage as opposed to OC spray usage due to total time of effects.

Yummy.  Fancy some on your pizza, Megyn?

But I digress.  And it’s difficult not to – this whole thing is getting incredibly visceral.  Claims that a pregnant woman miscarried as a result of police aggression make the whole thing even harder to consider rationally.

And all the while the issues that sparked the movement continue to simmer under the surface of stories like these.  The eurozone teeters, its members and interested parties jettisoning cash at an incredible rate to keep the ship of seventeen states afloat (essentially plugging its holes with taxpayer’s money).  The whole situation seems a bit like a jalopy with the brakes cut and twenty hands on the steering wheel.

Yeah, I feel like yelling too.  But even that won’t make me go to St. Andrews Square and join the Occupy Edinburgh protesters.  The aims are unclear, apart from “we don’t like what is currently happening”.

The protests most successful in bringing about change had well-defined aims.  We knew very well what Martin Luther King meant when he said “I have a dream”.  Even the protests that coalesced around Hu Yaobang’s death had a clear purpose when the tanks faced a man with a shopping bag in Tianamen Square.

Human beings respond strongly to figureheads, whether it’s MLK’s inspirational speech or Herman Cain saying something unbelievably obtuse (or perhaps just plain dumb) about #OWS.  I wonder if what this movement needs is an individual around which it can nucleate, and take truly solid form.  I might be able to get on board if I saw the movement had clear leadership and direction.  As a secondary effect, the movement might develop a more concrete set of beliefs and policies.  Yes, the current economic situation is unfair, and in many ways isn’t even capitalism (corruption at the highest levels was certainly not Adam Smith’s idea of an invisible hand).  But how to change it? There’s a lot of problems to fix, and the system is toxic all the way up.

A political movement needs a clear set of policies.  And I would love to hear what the Occupy movement has to say.

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