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A Few Thoughts on the Alchemy of Hope, Lesley Wood

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A Few Thoughts on the Alchemy of Hope, Lesley Wood

There is hope in the air. That hope is tied to a new rush to the streets, to protest, to say no to the status quo of payoffs to the rich, and cutbacks for the poor.

People are saying that they are the angry ones, the indignados, and that they are the 99%. In response they are occupying public squares, and powerful places. They are marching and assembling, and feeding each other. They are being arrested, beaten and ignored by police. They are making demands on the states they live in, but also on the banks, and on institutions like the European Union. Their demands vary, but they talk about ‘real democracy’ and fairness – themes that resonate widely. They blame the elites, the bankers and the government leaders who have created an economic crisis, bailed out the system and are attempting to cut social spending in order to restore business as usual.

On Facebook people send me maps of the US, of Europe and of the world are popping up with protests marked with virtual push-pins. It looks like the globe is erupting. But of course it’s not just one movement. It’s the interaction between a number of waves of protest, including the one sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, the one rocking Southern Europe, the wave of student protests that filled the streets in the UK over the past six months and the smaller ones in Canada and the US that are fighting austerity cuts to the public sector, from Wisconsin to Toronto.  Each of these waves is gaining new energy and significance as they have flowed onto Wall Street, and reverberate further.

We know something about globally influential waves of protest and contention. Researchers have studied the 1968 global wave of protest around Vietnam, the student movement and black power, the 1989-92 wave that collapsed the Soviet Union, the wave of revolutions of 1848 that affected over 50 countries in Europe and Latin America, and others.

The conditions of the launch of a new wave are somewhat mysterious. Like the start of a revolution, much ink and energy has been spent trying to identify, and replicate such moments. As per usual, protesters plan, gather and try to make a difference. Sometimes they innovate in some way, and if they achieve some success – either in terms of attention, solidarity, or much more rarely influence on authorities, they signal to others.  Sometimes observers may be inspired enough to, and have the capacity to share the news, or even to try to imitate the successful protesters. Only rarely do new tactics, slogans, or symbols stick and spread to new sites. Occupy Wall Street was one such idea. In order for an idea to be experimented with, people have to be able to put aside their cynicism. They need to be able to feel hope.

George Katsiaficas talked about ‘eros effect’ when he looked at how protest spread worldwide in 1968.
While I intuitively know what he means, I want to get more concrete.  If we’re talking about the case of the Occupy Wall Street actions, repression, and the media that was generated from the pepper spraying of young women protesters has helped accelerate its power and potential.  It has drawn attention to the protesters, made them appear sympathetic, and brave, when they continued to protest.

The longevity and endurance of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement is not due to the effectiveness of the tactic, nor repression, nor the albeit resonating frame of the 99%. It has to do with the context. People who study revolutions and waves of protest have noticed that when elites are divided, and when they appear confused and contradictory, protesters are more likely to emerge and more likely to be successful. There is no doubt that the current and widespread economic crisis has helped such a moment to arrive. The fact that the G20 leaders, and international financial institutions like the IMF have agreed to follow similar strategies to respond to this crisis has linked movements who otherwise would not necessarily be thinking along the same lines.  These global top-down connections are combined with bottom up connections amongst activists involved in waves of protest, linked through media like Facebook and Twitter.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement then is a product of both this global economic and financial crisis, the networks that link activists worldwide and the history and geography of the particular moment it emerged. The New York direct action movement it emerged from has recently been in a period of disarray.  The last five years has been a period of division and confusion. There has been very little direct action – outside of the student movement, as many organizers have put their time into local community organizing. As a large city, the scale of the movement sector has often led to competitiveness amongst non-profits and formal organizations. Coalitions that cross issue, race, class and neighbourhood are rare. And yet, there are recurrent attempts. In 2008, successful coalitions were built in the lead up to the Republican National Convention, despite over a thousand arrests.

The idea of occupying the hugely symbolic site of Wall Street resonates widely. Throughout the economic crisis, the idea has popped up repeatedly. So often in fact that most New York activists dismiss it quickly as impossible and impractical due to its small size, and likelihood of massive and speedy repression.
But herein lies the importance of local context and its intersection with other dynamics. The idea of occupying Wall Street was circulating through the movement networks that underlay the indignados protests in Spain this spring, the activists in Greece, France, Wisconsin and elsewhere. Through personal and political networks, these activists connected with those in New York City who were able to seriously consider the Wall Street strategy avoiding the historical cynicism of some more experienced organizers in the city. When these new organizers launched their protest, the initial reaction from some of the more experienced folks was skepticism.

But as the protesters endured, key coalition builders wrote pieces that argued that the movement was worthwhile and exciting. These included people like Marina Sitrin and David Graeber who had been active in the global justice movement; it included Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis, who have a great deal of respect in Marxists and feminist circles; celebrities like Michael Moore and Roseanne Barr; and then crucially the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective from the South Bronx argued that although it was a largely young, white crowd on Wall Street, who had little understanding of racial dynamics, the issues were significant and that they would stay involved. These public statements, along with many private ones, helped to build bridges that would facilitate the coalition building that would support the growth of the movement.

The wave won’t last forever. But it will change things – probably globally in terms of the decisions that the G20 leaders will make in Cannes this November, maybe at the national level, and probably at the local level in terms of NYPD’s policies around protest. It will definitely have an effect on the level of movement history, strategy and biography.  The US movement that is emerging is linked up with movements that have already overthrown governments, caused others to default, and created a crisis that has no easy answers. It’s unclear what this will mean in the US context. But what we do know is that people are hungry for hope, and the possibility of real change.

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