The OWS Crackdown: How Much Connection Do 99% Of Americans Have With OWS?

David Graeber, self described small ‘a’ anarchist, describes his experiences in August attending organizing meetings in response to the Adbusters magazine call to occupy Wall Street. As befitting an anthropology professor, Graeber explains that the ethos was not ‘vertical’ but ‘horizontal’.

But as I paced about the Green, I noticed something. To adopt activist parlance: this wasn’t really a crowds of verticals—that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement. They were mostly pretty obviously horizontals: people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action . . .

Two days later, at the Outreach meeting we were brainstorming what to put on our first flyer. Adbusters’ idea had been that we focus on “one key demand.” This was a brilliant idea from a marketing perspective, but from an organizing perspective, it made no sense at all. We put that one aside almost immediately. There were much more fundamental questions to be hashed out. Like: who were we? Who did want to appeal to? Who did we represent? Someone—this time I remember quite clearly it was me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a half dozen others had equally strong memories of being the first to come up with it—suggested, “well, why not call ourselves ‘the 99%’? If 1% of the population have ended up with all the benefits of the last 10 years of economic growth, control the wealth, own the politicians… why not just say we’re everybody else?” The Spanish couple quickly began to lay out a “We Are the 99%” pamphlet, and we started brainstorming ways to print and distribute it for free.

As an analysis of the internal politics and agendas of various protest movement factions it’s a fascinating read. But it prompts a question: how much of a connection do Americans have with OWS beyond passive approval?

It’s impossible to escape casual news reporting on the ever-growing American wealth disparity this October. We haven’t done the focus groups ourselves. We’d wager a good beer that a majority of Americans have consumed some media reports on topic. Hence, the brilliance of the ‘We are the 99%” slogan. It’s accurate. And welcoming. OWS approval ratings, while vastly higher among independents than the Tea Party, still remain relatively modest. The test is how much ‘approval’ translates into connection or even vicarious participatory sympathy.

A case study? How the 99% react to the roll up of OWS presences from Oakland, Cleveland, Baltimore, Atlanta, Boston and Chicago – with thousands of arrests. We focus here on the forcible shut down of the actual installations. Not celebutantes issuing press releases about their ‘ordeals’, etc. In one sense, it’s easy to stay detached. After all, arrested? There’s an app for that. How consumer friendly.

So far, we’d judge the 99% of Americans ostensibly represented by OWS are unmoved. Apparently they still view events as third party observers rather than participants. True, the Oakland crackdown offered media-friendly images of clash and discord. Americans can note in their own backyards OWS is discord-free and kept public order.

As an ongoing experiment in post-Obama politics OWS continues. We return to the Graeber item above. Would that vocabulary, mindset and avowed agenda play in the fabled ‘Philadelphia suburbs’? Does it even need to? In order to achieve a political alternative between Center-Rightist Democrats and the Rightists? When the Democratic proffer to the ‘Super Committee’ wouldn’t even be considered by the Reagan Administration?


  1. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Thanks for sharing this. Read with great interest. The cognitive and semantic organization feels very heavily tech-influenced, from treating OWS to bounce rates and filters.

    The paradox of a systems analysis template for a bottom-driven entity consciously refusing such constraints intriguing for any internal re-appraisal should OWS return/remain in Spring.

    What’s your sense?

  2. DrLeoStrauss says

    Why there’s surprise that comics persona Frank Miller would issue a screed against OWS. Particularly after OWS protested treatment of the Palestinians. Finally, in 2011, one can see a few light bulbs turn on illuminating the American pop culture landscape.

  3. DrLeoStrauss says

    @jwb Your focus on Greece makes a great deal of sense. Watching it, too, and getting ready to make necessary calls.

  4. jwb says

    @DrLeoStrauss Yes, a lot happening at the moment, but oddly only some of it seems to be of the shiny object variety. Personally, I’ve been distracted from closely following the Occupy movement by the increasingly dire situation in Greece and trying to work out the contingency table of what happens when, as now seems likely, Greece leaves the Eurozone.

  5. DrLeoStrauss says

    @jwb Agree, there seems to be a lot of finger pointing. In fact, it’s probably not important. Oakland is third or fourth on a news chyron, after Cain’s mess, congressional car wrecks, Kim Kardashian and then a brief message about some tagging on a coffee store or two.

    Timing is everything. OWS, as Napoleon once inquired about prospective Marshals, lucky.

  6. jwb says

    From what I’ve been hearing on the Twittermachine, there is a contingent of rich kids in the Bay area who regularly assume the role of anarchists and attach themselves to any protest movement that comes along so they can go out and smash things. They are the ones being blamed, at least on the Twittermachine. I have no idea whether there is any truth to that—it scans a bit like a nutty conspiracy tale—but I’ve heard it from a fairly large number of sources.

  7. DrLeoStrauss says

    The 100+ who chose violence overnight in Oakland blew it. Lucky for OWS overall that there’s a juicier sex scandal.

  8. Dr Leo Strauss says

    New from Oakland is good. Great turn out; port peaceably subject to strike. Fascinating to follow live feeds.

  9. Sam Lowry says

    Yeah, agree that either proposition is pretty ridiculous. A quick Google search of “left wing Politico” comes up with more than a few links to Rush Limbaugh, Fox “News”, Gateway Pundit, etc. who use the term. The amount of cognitive dissonance required to be part of FoxNation et al. is too much. (Of course, my favorite FoxNation-ism is their decision to consistently refer to Bill Maher as “Pig Maher”. Although that probably indicates I spend waaaay too much time paying attention to rightist media sources. But I hope to be of some value to future historians as a primary source of info about what happened to our society in the 2000s.)

  10. Sam Lowry says

    It’s heartwarming to hear that the relevance and impact of the WaPo is near zero. I’d like to think the same about the rest of the corporate mainstream media. That’s funny that Politico (or “the left wing Politico” as it is often called on FoxNation and talk radio) can drive the news cycle. Decadent times, indeed.

  11. DrLeoStrauss says

    @Brendan Yours is a pithy summary of what’s been accomplished so far, Brendan. You’re definitely right that ‘narrative’ control in our demotic times is the alpha and omega of political activity.

    OWS is to be lauded for introducing the alternative ‘we are the 99%’ meme. It’s encouraging.

  12. Brendan says

    Although possibly biased from my perch in The City, I think you may be underestimating the effect OWS has already had. In 5 short weeks a band of people camping out on all Wall Street has done something that the Movement took decades perfecting: taking control of the narrative, the lens from which all current events are viewed.

    This narrative has seeped into the wider public through the ironically helpful brain-dead news media, and has succeeded, at least temporarily, in supplanting the narrative of the 1% that has so dominated public discourse.

    As persons deeply involved in the Movement’s ascendency (conjecture based off your insinuations), you must realize that if a movement can consistently define the narrative in its terms, in its language…than it becomes inevitable that it will begin to get it what it wants.

  13. DrLeoStrauss says

    @Sam Lowry You kindly shared the WaPo’s aspirations to be the Nation’s populist paper back then, Sam. Given what the WaPo print didi with Occupy, they’ve settled on voice of the status quo apparatchik.

    Other than waiting rooms for car repairs or the like, we have read the hard copy version of the WaPo twice in 2011. Over lunch a nationally known political operative expressed dismay that a prominent, long story in the WaPo had no impact, no meme traction. No one picked it up. He said if the story was on Politico for just 3 hours it would drive a news cycle. And then he confessed he didn’t read the WaPo either. “No one does” he added.

    Maybe that’s the new populism: stealth.

  14. Sam Lowry says

    A few months back the WaPo ombudsman (IIRC) wrote about the paper needing to become more populist. I’m not sure which was more populist in their paper edition’s coverage immediately following the breakup of the Occupy Oakland encampment- the photo of the cop petting a kitten or the headline “Protesters Wearing Out Their Welcome Nationwide”. (To be fair, WaPo’s online coverage may have been better from what I have read. But still.) It’s a tough call. If this is what the WaPo’s populism looks like, populism is in trouble.

  15. Comment says

    The 99% slogan is excellent – A more accurate, but less elegant and euphemous would be 99.9 pr 99.8%. But that just shows the DNC didn’t design it.

  16. StPaulite says

    I don’t know what success the Occupation can have other than shifting the terrain of discourse. The avenue from Occupation to policy change is much more indirect than from “Tea Party” to Republican majorities. The big city mayors — I’m assuming they’d all like to see these things disappear — seem to be playing this fairly smart: wait for boredom and the viviparous pathologies of the left to set in, then clear them out as a public health issue.

    What could happen is for more local and more specific kinds of activism to take on the Occupation name. Hate to say it, but “branding”. Mike Konzcal wrote about “foreclosure occupation” here:

    In an environment where one’s rights and dignity as a citizen is an inconvenience to the owners, mere existence becomes “occupation”. If this idea can become a through-line between different struggles I think that’s a success. I get frustrated seeing these protests unable to arrive, spontaneously, by consensus, at a set of cogent media-legible demands, but that’s just the way these things go.

  17. jwb says

    Like the pepper spray in NYC, Oakland has registered as an uptick of interest on my Facebook feed. Otherwise, OWS appears in my FB newsfeed mostly obliquely, through gentle parody of OWS rather than linking by friends to any Occupy event directly. An exception has been the “We are the 99%” tumblr, which received quite a number of direct links. I’ve seen no links to the “We are the 53%” tumblr in my feed, which says that it is either being overhyped by the media or that my friends’ list is uncharacteristic. In any case, I’d say about half of my FB friends fall into the category of suburban/exurban.

    I am also not aware of any friend, either FB or real life, who has visited an Occupy event, although I have. On the other hand, water cooler chatter has shown a definite uptick of political optimism since the emergence of OWS—not so much for the horse race of the 2012 election, although there is some of that to be sure, but a recognition, faint though it might be, that political capitulation is perhaps not inevitable, that resistance remains possible, that the world turns and might yet bring a new day.

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