Megan Rosker visited Liberty Plaza and found the protests surprisingly subdued.
Tonight I returned from spending the afternoon observing #OccupyWallStreet in Liberty Plaza. A close friend and I hopped the train and found ourselves a short ride later shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of disenfranchised people.
I wanted to see this movement first hand for several reasons. One: in my lifetime, this is the first large American political protest that has occurred. I felt I owed it to myself to set eyes on it, especially since it was only 90 or so blocks away. Two: I wanted to see, first hand, what is happening with this protest, the energy of this place, and the people.
What I saw upon arriving were 500 or so people walking around the park. Some had formed groups and were singing or chanting together. It was loud. It was tight, but peaceful and intelligent conversations were happening everywhere. Many of those in attendance are college age students, but mixed in were families, “regular” middle class unemployed Americans, high school and middle school students, the elderly, and every ethnicity, race and culture usually represented in New York City. There were signs in Arabic, English, and Spanish People were talking on phones, taking movies on cell phones, streaming live to the web by holding their laptops in the air. While the audience in Liberty Plaza may have been relatively small, the audience that was being reached through these technologies stretches into the millions.
Their organization of the space and how duties were divided up amongst the protesters was impressive. There is a kitchen area where volunteers prepare food. All the Tupperware and bowls are stacked neatly, ready for meal time. People are running back and forth bringing in huge deliveries of food as others prepare for the next meal.
There is an area for protestors to recharge their phones in order to keep information streaming from every capable hand held device. There is an information table where one can find a schedule for the day’s events. There is even a flow chart displayed, sharing the strategy of how the group wants to reach as many people as possible. There is a newspaper that is being distributed and tables and tables of pamphlets, books, and fliers. Everyone’s tents and sleeping bags are neatly rolled away so people can walk easily through the crowd during the day. All in all, considering how many people there are and the circumstances of this rustic urban camp, things seem to run smoothly.
On the downside, the crowd that has gathered, though relatively enthusiastic, doesn’t seem to have a unified message. There are signs about corporate greed, abolishing taxes, saving schools, wiping away debt, and abandoning our wars in the Middle East. It quickly becomes hard to tell what the protest is about. And as my friend commented, many of the protesters are the “dial a protest” type. In other words, they are likely to show up anywhere that a big protest might be taking place, seeking their 15 minutes of fame.
Because of this, I don’t feel the in-person experience of the protest was half as powerful as the online presence and momentum it has gathered. The protesters ability to wrangle social media, to spread their message of rebellion to all corners of the globe is by far their largest strength. Their online message is far more powerful than a group banging a drum and chanting Hare Krishna or poetic chants that ripple through the crowds. While these are an important part in creating energy in Liberty Plaza, they have little bearing on the success of the movement globally, of actually harnessing enough attention to make real social change.
And this brings up the next question: are these protestors looking for real social change or are they looking for a job? If there was a magic employment wand that could be waved, and suddenly they were guaranteed an affordable education, a middle management position, a pension, and affordable health care, would they all go home? The reason I ask this is because of their lack of a clear unified message and a list of demands. And this leads me to my next question: are we experiencing a protest or the most peaceful riot in human history?
Riots typically happen in response to a perceived grievance, like the draft, government issues, poor living and working conditions, or over taxation. Hm, some of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Riots are often violent and require the use of riot police, and though things have not turned violent here in NYC, they did turn violent in Rome today. There is certainly the potential as this movement continues to grow that we could see more violence.
Riots often occur when frustration boils over and that is what I saw today. Frustration oozes from those living and protesting in Liberty Plaza. They are fed up with the way our society is being run and by whom it is being run. It is this frustration that bonds those in Rome with those in Toronto, New York, Chicago, London, and all the cities in between.
Their violence isn’t coming in the form of busting up windows and lighting cars on fire. Perhaps this is a new kind of riot, one that uses the tear gas of language, words that hit the government’s glass house like rocks, and the fire of interconnectedness that springs from social media. Perhaps we are experiencing the first online riot, brought to us by the first truly online generation.