Occupy Wall Street: A Movement Without Demands
/ October 20, 2011

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.

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