Democratic Participation and The Tactics of Occupy Wall Street
~by Michael Drew
In comments, Professor James Hanley had this rebuke of the NYPD, followed by some advice for Occupy Wall Street:
[C]olor me exceptionally disgusted by NYC’s shock and awe approach, which is exactly the second worst type of policing possible (with the worst being secret police). But this colossal fascist beat-down is not happening at the bequest of the 1%. The ugly reality that OWS needs to face up to is that a large portion of middle class America is not/i> joining them and approves of this police response. That portion of middle class America does not deserve any respect, but they’re very real and they’re not the 1%.
I don’t disagree that the crackdown did not happen only on behalf of the 1%. Small business owners – very few of them in the top 1% – in neighborhoods occupied by demonstrators have been affected very significantly economically affected by the occupation. Moreover, the city has an entirely legitimate interest in maintaining its public spaces as truly public spaces, and its streets as working traffic arteries. But then still – that’s the point of this exercise. It’s an occupation designed to disrupt the working status quo of cities because of lingering social and economic issues that the group feels are being neglected. Early on it was denied that the demonstrations were even having the physical effect of disrupting life in the cities in which they were happening. Well…. And, legalities of time, place and manner regulations aside, it is simply a fact that the police were used to forcefully disperse a an expressive political assembly that was for the most part, considering its size and duration, peaceful. This was a political choice that the movement successfully forced cities to make, and one in which the cities could have chosen differently. As the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union put it, “it is important to remember that the First Amendment sets a floor – not a ceiling – for determining whether the government should accommodate free expression. There is no reason why the Bloomberg administration cannot embrace a more expansive understanding of freedom of speech and allow the protesters and their tents back into Zuccotti Park in a way that is consistent with public safety and health.”
Nevertheless, the gathering in New York was dispersed (again, in my view, not entirely without reason), and tents are now contraband in the newly designated protest areas. Professor Hanley suggests that this is, to a large extent, a-okay with the movement’s ostensible target audience: the American middle class. I could quibble with the evidentiary basis for the Professor’s claim that “a large portion” of the middle class supports this response, and I will. “This response” in this post is the response of the NYPD this week, and I can’t imagine there is already polling on that. Also, the claim is vague: 20% could be a large portion, depending on the professor’s meaning. In fact, I would say 20% would be a large portion of the public to support for what happened this week in NYC. But at the same time that 20% might support the actions, a plurality could simultaneously oppose them. So it’s not clear what’s factually being claimed here. I also wholly disagree with the idea that anyone who held that view would be undeserving of my respect. I can understand that reaction entirely; were this a different protest, I might feel the same way (though I’d be wrong in both cases – but not undeserving of respect).
Further, in any polling that does come out on these actions (or previous ones), the phrasing of the survey questions is very relevant to any conclusions we might draw. If the question was “Do you support cities’ right to disperse protesters in order to maintain order and safety?”, the results you are likely to get are going to be of one kind. If it is, “Do you support the actions the NYPD took Nov. 15-18th?” followed by an accurate description (highly unlikely), the results are likely to be something rather different.
But as I say, this is quibbling. The main point I’d like to make is about the implication Professor Hanley would like us to draw from the polling results he refers to. He suggests that OWS “needs to face up to” the facts about public opinion that he suggests are real. Let us then assume that “a large portion” of the public does indeed support the use of reasonable police action to clear public spaces occupied by OWS and assure regular traffic on the streets and walks. Are we so sure that we are strategically in tune with OWS enough to be able to say that they do or don’t “need to face up to” this? And, most significantly, what would that amount to?
One might argue that facing up to public support for authorities’ efforts to ensure order and more or less regular business to their cities might simply mean obeying the new limits that cities have placed on the time, place and manner of the movement’s assemblies. As far as I am aware, the movement is by and large doing this. But I get the feeling that James means something else when he says there is a need for OWS to “face up” to something. I get the sense that what he is calling for is for them to abandon the confrontational, obnoxious, disruptive approach that they have used up to this point. (Methods that incidentally have had precisely the effect OWS that has intended them to have from the start.) I’d like to ask, Why on earth would they do this? Is it actually important to them that they maintain the direct sympathy of middle-class Americans for the group as such?
It seems to me that from the beginning they have been conducting their campaign so as to be, and be perceived of, as maximally obnoxious and, especially, disruptive to everyday life in the locations of the action. This has been done to the end of increasing attention to a group of issues that middle-class Americans are strongly (in the 60+% range, according to recent polling I cited in comments) aligned with them on. At this they have been undeniably successful. Even while the popularity of the group has fallen, the public’s views of the issues themselves have remained roughly steady, while the media discussion has swung strongly toward those issues from concerns over spending and debt. The extent to which OWS has conducted itself in a way that was intended to to make friends or gain sympathy through its specific actions is very much in doubt. Now there are calls for them to change tactics.
Will Wilkinson and Julian Sanchez in particular have had enough and are crying Uncle. They want OWS to start to Participate In the Democratic Process. ’You’ve made your point, now de-escalate and come back to the democratic bargaining table (where we are more confident we can defeat you with what we regard as our hyper-rational dismissals of your concerns),’ they seem to say, or even, ‘Please decamp to your assigned corner of the democratic checkerboard and limit your democratic participation to the parameters that have traditionally applied to these types of debates in the two-party system. In other words, their message is, ‘Please just allow things go back to how they were before you so profoundly changed the facts on the ground. We liked it much better that way.’
But why would they do this? To please The Economist’s WW? Because Julian Sanchez would like to discuss their concerns with them over tea? Because if they moderate themselves and their tactics, then maybe, just maybe, they can get Barack Obama re-elected, or primary a Democratic Senator? Is it just me, or does this completely misunderstand the rather obvious fundamental meaning of these demonstrations, beyond the economic grievances? Is it obvious only to me that, beyond inequality and jobs, the deeper subject of these protests are basic questions of representativeness, responsiveness, and efficacy of the organizations they are now being told to appeal to in a traditional way? Am I the only one who thinks this is a basic misreading of the political relationship as seen by these protesters between themselves as political actors and the democratic institutions they are trying both to put pressure on, and at the same time to bypass? Am I wrong to think that this will be obvious even if one is not sympathetic to the movement’s poorly articulated aims, or is a skeptic about its methods, or turned off by its tactics?
It seems obvious to me that this movement was from the start a statement about the demonstrated unresponsiveness, corruption, and brokenness of those institutions and the prevailing procedural arrangements of our politics and their resulting inability to address the issues the movement is concerned with. I think that should be clear to anyone, no matter your views of those issues. That”s why their in the streets and occupying parks rather than knocking on doors on behalf of insurgent primary challengers to sitting Democratic lawmakers. Matthew Yglesias says, “You Can’t Abandon Electoral Politics.” While some activists no doubt has done this, the movement as a whole certainly has not foresworn electoral politics as an object upon which to try to exert its influence. But neither are they accepting existing institutions as sufficient repositories for their activism – that’s what the whole thing is about to a large degree! What sense does it make to tell them to please go home now and focus on acting through those institutions?
Even if we take traditional participation in established institutions through traditional processes as the only ultimately legitimate object of democratic political participation, why should this not be advanced applying sustained pressure on elected officials by maintaining a high-visibility, confrontational approach that has in fact succeeded in bringing such pressure to bear and has made the movement something worth discussion in the first place? Should we think it will do so because the public narrowly supports the police’s efforts to take back the streets and and public spaces? I don’t see why that would be the case. The public can actually support the re-establishment of public order while welcoming continued confrontational activism on behalf of ideas it supports. And even if it doesn’t, is it really more likely that de-escalating will keep pressure on officials in a way that staying in the streets, even if unpopular, won’t? The givers of this advice certainly won’t shed any tears if it turns out not to do so.
I don’t see a great public outcry around Occupy Wall Street’s tactics; at most I just see a divided response to a question that was put to them. I do see robust public support for the issues OWS is making a nuisance of themselves over. If that was not the case, it would not matter what they did – certainly brash tactics would not help to popularize an unpopular program. But that’s not the situation. They have a popular agenda that they are bringing visibility to, which is raising the pressure on politicians to come up with a response. The group’s popularity is suffering as a result, but not the agenda’s. I don’t see how now changing to a strategy of de-escalation and civil engagement on the terms that pre-existed the movement will serve to keep the pressure on policy makers. And keeping pressure on policy makers is how you advance a policy agenda by participating in democracy. (As if gathering in public spaces and marching in the streets, weren’t in any case a quintessential way to participate in democracy). Whatever the case, it’s their movement, and it’s their choice. And I have yet to see anyone from the outside offer them a single piece of what I consider to be good strategic advice, taking their interests and aims seriously, which is to say taking the time to try to understand what those are from their perspective.
It is interesting to see how quickly some libertarians (not generally the ones here — and perhaps the ones in question elsewhere don’t adhere to the skeptical arguments about democracy that have been made of late here) suddenly about face and assert the legitimacy and supposedly representative nature of our democratic institutions when the real alternative to those institutions – unmediated democracy itself – pokes its nose under the tent. That’s after previously questioning that representativeness and suggesting that legitimacy is in general too cheaply offered by the people to an unaccountable state (again, perhaps Wilkinson and Sanchez don’t go in for this). When more unruly avenues are being explored, suddenly our creaky institutions become beacons of the public will, and the only legitimate vein for expression of democratic impulses, as if the people relinquished the prerogative to take more direct democratic action when these wonderfully representative institutions were established.
But that is merely interesting in passing. The true curiosity is the strategic question of what is to be gained by a fundamental shift in tactics for this movement. It is one thing to counsel deeper engagement with ideas, arguments and facts, clarification of fundamental motivations and aims, and against a full rejection of the traditional institutional architecture of our democracy as beyond salvage. It is another thing to advise the shift from tactics that have evidently been the movement’s primary means for affecting democratic debate. All the previous things can be done without abandoning what has been so successful thus far. (And yes, this movement has already been successful, unquestionably.) This is not to say that the argument for the need to make that shift cannot be convincingly made. But I have not yet seen it.