Occupy Wall Street: Misreading Lessons from Tahrir

Straw Poll on Direct Action

This weekend, over a thousand protesters marched on Wall Street, with a couple hundred continuing into the night occupying Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan. Echoed with enthusiastic, revolutionary glee was the impression that the event, planned over a few short weeks, was an extension of popular movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece and Spain, and a change in American discourse. Unfortunately, the event has come to represent, in execution, an extension of the same insular leftism with no broad appeal to the public.

NYC Madrid

Passive revolution.

Walking to cull through my photos from the day, I ran into a group holding a candle light vigil on the sidewalk. Knowing my neighborhood, I assumed the townhouse was an embassy and went to spy which. Northwest Dupont Circle is a hotbed of consulates for former and current pariah regimes, housing Belarus, Iraq, Zimbabwe within a few square blocks. As I ducked in to look and then walk away, I was flagged down by an older individual who wanted to explain that they were expatriate Eritrean,s protesting government oppression of democratic activists.

The difference in attitude was striking. For a group of eight, it was worthwhile to track me down and make the case for their cause; yet, the previous afternoon, little effort was made by the hundreds of protesters to engage the public.

Instead, the media model was clear. A sufficient number of protesters occupying a space for long enough would hypothetically attract the Television attention necessary to bring out the public and inconvenience the daytime residents of the neighborhood. The call to action was ‘bring your friends, stay the night and if you can’t stay — come back tomorrow.’

Lectures given and agreements were made that the police were working class comrades, deceived by the elites; however, few attempts were made to convert those lining the perimeter of the square. Those interlocutors that wandered in on their own will, were less at risk of being lectured on wealth inequality than they were on truths about the events that took place two blocks away and ten years ago, or imminent execution of a Georgian man.


Pluralism is Strength

The differences between ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and Egypt’s Tahrir Square couldn’t be more stark. Nowhere close to enough has been written about the internal process leading up to the early days of February, but one gleans the image of organizers moving into the coffeeshops to recruit the unemployed and dispossessed. On top of this legwork, preexisting civil society existed that the protesters could connect on a common cause. The lead up to Tahrir was not young students camping out, writing on Twitter, appealing to the media and waiting for the public to join. Instead, it was the process of


…the Kifaya movement, a political formation that brought together Islamists, Muslim Brothers, communists, liberals, and secular-leftists, joined on the basis of a common demand for an end to the Mubarak regime…[1]


The organizational skills of the ultras, fanatical Cairo soccer fans, are emerging as opponents and supporters of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak determine the fate of the 82-year old Egyptian leader’s 30-year rule.[2]

At times it would seem that the Tea Party, a coalition of groups with extremely different social positions united by a few common goals, has more in common than Egypt’s revolutionaries.

Nothing of the sort of networking necessary for a movement happened that day on Wall Street. No attempt was made to bring in the public; and groups introspectively defined themselves to discuss the ambitions of the strike. More time was spent on the discussion of parliamentary systems and planning of events, than communications and outreach. As tourists wandered, unassailed, down the busy corridor of Broadway that constituted the border of the encampment, opportunities were lost.

People Against the Machine

Rhetoric Matters

The classic pattern occurred of working groups, self-indoctrination and sectarian debate. Instead, the protests seemed more bent of defining their unwillingness to participate in economic systems, than offering solutions to the public. By conflating wealth inequality with class warfare, the protesters closed off access to the majority of the public. Peripheral issues further this disengagement — confronting the narrative of September 11th, everyone is lost.

Lower Manhattan is not pre-revolution Egypt or Tunisia, and environmental comparisons fail in merit. The bombastic comments heard frequently about ‘not being afraid to go to jail or die,’ must certainly be based on the understanding that the latter is improbable and the former insignificant. The New York Police Department’s book, hold, release and drop policies are incomparable to the horrors of Evin Prison, and attempts to draw parallels insult real suffering. For that matter, such poor execution of civil disobedience is more liable to put off potential supporters than create social change.


Avoiding Alienation

To be sure, many in Liberty Plaza have been genuinely affected by the economics of the United States, and compelling stories exist in the crowd. One comment overheard embodied this.

To pay my way through a Bachelors in Biology, I worked in a hotel. When I graduated I couldn’t find a job in what I studied for, and the only reason I could find anything at all, was because of that previous hospitality experience, doing the same thing I was doing back then. It’s sad; that terrible job was worth more than my college diploma.

These are the stories that concern the general public and resonate more deeply than the idealist whose goal is to never work a nine-to-five job in their life while they seek to overthrow the status quo. No suburban parent will see themselves or their children in that individual.

What’s clear is that a compelling narrative exists to be seized by idealistic youth. The social politics of America is defined by a generation with a bleaker future than their predecessors — underemployed and lacking credibility — and the parents, concerned about their children’s future and their own. This is a nightmare that cuts across all sections of the public, from the cosmopolitan coasts to the rural Midwest. If the United States has its own Tahrir moment, it will begin with that simple fact.

[1] http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/02/09/the-road-to-tahrir/

[2] http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2011/02/egyptian-ultra-tactics-evident-in.html