Occupy Wall Street: A Movement Without Demands

Zucotti Park, Wednesday night. Photo by Jake Moore.

The mainstream media’s coverage of Occupy Wall Street has been at best critical and at worst dismissive of the growing movement. “We don’t even know what their demands are” has been the catchphrase thrown around by every political pundit out there. Even our own Kyle Zinn thrashed the movement for its lack of a clear plan.

When we went down to Zuccotti Park a few weeks ago, we witnessed the lack of a demand firsthand. When the General Assembly ended, the people’s mic was opened up to anyone who wanted to speak. We listened as Eric Lerner, a 54 year-old New Jersey resident and spokesman for the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, urged the protestors to come up with a few concrete demands that could be met. Immediately after he spoke, a 45 year-old Harlem resident and carpenter who identified himself only as Dirtbag insisted that the movement didn’t need to make demands. “We’re not terrorists, we’re citizens,” he said.

Gallatin’s Stephen Duncombe has been particularly frustrated by The New York Times‘ representations of Occupy Wall Street. He noted, “this is [their] classic… approach to protests; ‘people should be protesting, I would be protesting with them, except this isn’t the right way to [do it]‘… It essentially lets you off the hook and that’s what liberals love to do; they love to let themselves off the hook.”

“[They say,] ‘If it was Nazi Germany, of course I would have stood up.’ No, actually, you would not have stood up – that’s the fact – the people who stood up were the ‘irrational’ anarchists and… communists, and you would have hated them as well. This is the problem; that we need to be able to say… ‘those people are nuts. They’re nuts in the Tea Party and they’re nuts down on Wall Street,’ because that way, we reassure ourselves that we’re not cowards,” he elaborated.

Jacques Lezra, the chair of NYU’s Comparative Literature department, suggests that the movement’s lack of a clear demand or proposal isn’t necessarily a weakness, but a strength.”There seems to be to me a very strong political statement made precisely by the lack of a specific demand.” He argues that specifying a demand is complying with a broken system and reduces a protest to something concrete and manageable; instead he calls what the protestors are making an “empty demand.”

Duncombe echoed Lezra’s sentiment; “The idea that the social movement  creates coherent demands that are then either accepted or rejected by the state — I don’t think that’s necessarily how social movements have ever worked, and I definitely don’t think that’s how they work today.”

Duncombe views Occupy Wall Street as a movement that is creating the change it wants to see. “They’re structuring the protest in…  a very decentric [manner], which gets at the root of the word demonstration in a way that most people don’t think about it, which is that [it] demonstrates something; if you’re having a demonstration for democracy, well, it had better be a democratic demonstration… One of the things they’re doing is that they’re practicing what they’re preaching… it’s inefficient, it’s frustrating, but it also allows you to create something in the act of protesting which otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”

When Slavoj Žižek spoke to the crowd at Liberty Plaza, he urged the activists to remember, “that our basic message is: We are allowed to think about alternatives… We do not live in the best possible world [and] there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?”

He suggested that this movement would most likely come to a close, but that it was the beginning of something bigger; that it was a creative space in which people can think about the kind of world that they want to live in.

Photos by Jake Moore.

Zoe Schlanger contributed reporting.


    Share Your Thoughts


  1. Jerry Frey says

    An unscripted reality show, Occupy America is a populist movement in the tradtion of the nineteenth century Cross of Gold. Speculation (George Soros; hedge funds), long or short, oil futures, de-regulation, neo-liberalism, benefits the 1 percent connected class with no social benefit. Banks once organized and allocated capital in order to produce wealth, economic expansion, that benefited the many rather than the few. Globalists know no national loyalty and are detached from their nations.

    -Median wealth among Hispanic households amounted to $6,325 in 2009, down 66 percent from 2005.
    -For Asian households, median wealth fell 54 percent to $78,066.
    -For blacks, wealth declined 53 percent to $5,677.
    -For whites, it dropped 16 percent to $113,149.


  2. stan chaz says

    The demands are as old as man: respect, fairness, dignity, and equality.
    To the hardy souls at OWS:
    Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, define yourself.-Harvey Fierstein

  3. Christian says

    How about identifying the problem as the central banking system, and then protesting that…since it actually IS problem..?

  4. says

    To those within Occupy who say that no clear set of demands is needed, I respectfully disagree. It’s wise to take a lesson here from MLK and the civil rights rights movement; great things can happen with a prolonged, dedicated struggle against oppression, whether it’s racial OR economic. We don’t live in Egypt, we live in a country that is founded on protests and free expression. And as can be seen from the civil rights movement, great things happen when a dedicated and growing group of people demand it. Soon it will come time to “Unify Occupy” on an a clear set of demands, on the discipline and practice of non-violence, and focusing on the grave problem of income inequality in this country. You can read more of this argument on the Constructive Debate blog: http://bit.ly/sMjqHb