Follow No Leader

This weekend, the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City's financial district reached a fevered pitch. Police arrested more than 80 protesters, and video evidence emerged appearing to show a New York Police Department officer indiscriminately spraying a group of protesters with mace. But according to some, the protest was more show than substance. In a New York Times write-up describing the mostly white young protesters wearing mainly black clothes, Ginia Bellafante writes:

The group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face.

Bellafante mockingly characterized the protesters as a mix of punk anarchists and reincarnated hippies -- here a young woman in nothing but underwear, there a young man wearing "a knee-length burlap vest, fur hat, ski goggles and tiny plastic baby dolls applied to the tips of his fingers" -- with no clear message or purpose. Indeed, the group calls itself a "leaderless resistance movement" and claims inspiration from "our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland."

One of the downsides of anarchists is they tend to oppose most forms of organization -- including their own. Rather than the usual "we're all in this together" sense of purposeful community that propels meaningful protests, Occupy Wall Street felt like the political equivalent of a rave; it made recent uprisings across the globe seem like a trivial fad. Standing in its midst, I was reminded of the uppity kids from my college days who dressed up like punks and protested because it seemed cool.

If you want to see the difference between effective organizing and pantomime, compare Occupy Wall Street with the New Bottom Line coalition, a group of community organizations that have put together protests across the country to demand that big banks put back into our economy what they drained from communities. In San Francisco yesterday, groups of homeowners, community members, students, and clergy went to the offices of Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase to demand that their congregations' money be withdrawn from these financial institutions. It is part of a series of coordinated actions over the next several weeks that not only has a clear message and concrete demands but is organized by accountable community groups that represent millions of Americans -- not some well-meaning but isolated and angry kids who met on the Internet.

The hacker group Anonymous, one of the groups behind the Occupy Wall Street actions, is better known for its online sabotage of everything from the Libyan government to the San Francisco subway system. So before the collective takes down my website, let me be clear: I love a good protest. Any kind of protest. As the saying goes, power never concedes anything without a fight, and those bold enough to stand up to the status quo with their bodies, words, and actions make me proud to be part of a nation borne out of precisely such expressions of popular discontent.

That said, I'm no anarchist. I'm too much of a Jewish mother to carp about all forms of authority for its own sake. I tend to favor the sort of well-ordered, well-bathed protests of the early 1960s; I want to know what democracy looks like, not what it smells like.

The point of a protest is not (merely) to disrupt the status quo but to paint a portrait of the harm the system is doing and highlight better alternatives. The image of four young black men sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, was like a Norman Rockwell painting. Egyptians gathering in "Freedom" (Tahrir) square in Cairo acted out the secular, cross-ethnic unity of a democratic nation. At its best, protest is a collective art form.

But the Occupy Wall Street protests seem, tactically and optically, like an end in themselves -- for the protesters, the self-expression and disruption of the protest is the point. For grassroots organizations like those in the New Bottom Line, protest is a means to an end -- a tactic they employ to get the system to recognize the entire community's needs and demands. It's the opposite of anarchy -- an appreciation that to challenge autocratic power, we must build the power of those who have been targeted and marginalized, those who are together organizing for an alternative vision.

In other words, part of the "collective" in the collective-art form of protest comes not just from a loose association of strangers marching on the street but intentional, cultivated communities. That's why, for instance, Internet "organizing" has been effective at rapid-response, mass mobilizations but not the deeper, sustained work of movement building. There's a qualitative difference in what's achieved through on-the-ground community organizing.

That said, the makeup of community-organizing groups has often hampered the art side of protest. Privileged, entitled white kids with nothing to fear can put on very dramatic shows. Community-organizing leaders, on the other hand, are African American single moms who can't risk arrest lest there be no one to pick their kids up from school; undocumented immigrants who might be deported if they make too much noise; poor senior citizens who aren't exactly going to scale a building and hang a banner. Thus, community organizing has often been of the "show up, hold signs, and leave when the cops come" variety, mildly attention getting but mostly tame.

But not always. Wait and see what the New Bottom Line folks have in store. Circles of community organizers have been debating how to amp up their direct-action tactics given that big banks are resistant to existing public and political pressure. If past action by one of its leading partners, National People's Action, is any indicator, we can expect the actions to be poignant and entertaining (e.g., community members dressed like Robin Hood storming the moat-protected JPMorgan Chase headquarters). Certainly, the image of middle-class churchgoers and their pastors pulling their tithing funds from the big banks is so apple pie it's subversive.

Aldus Huxley once said, "What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?" These are horribly inclement times. I, for one, take solace in the resistance of the American people -- not only the angry kids who march with fists in the air but the displaced elderly homeowners, public school teachers, and unemployed workers who band together to create striking portraits of brave Americans demanding a better world for us all. That's the sort of protest that looks beautiful -- and maybe even smells good, too.

Read more from Sally Kohn on #OccupyWallSt

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