Tuesday, October 4, 2011




The reckless greed of Wall Street is legend, and surely needs reining in, but the “leader-free” democratic claims of the OccupyWallStreet movement may prove more myth than mythic. What is it about American political culture, left, right and center, that makes for an obligatory mantra of “democracy” even in its absence, whether it be in the name of upholding the status quo, upsetting the apple cart or fomenting revolution? 

On October first, I found myself at the foot of Brooklyn Bridge, not far from where my grandparents first settled in this country, watching hundreds of police cordon off the stately landmark in order to divide a gathering crowd and confront protesters already on the bridge.

Having just arrived from China, via Japan, I was curious about how America might be changing. I stood witness with a largely youthful crowd, morale sustained by rhythmic chants and the drone of drumbeats, as one of the largest mass arrests in American history followed. During the contained, subdued turmoil, I translated for a newly arrived Chinese student who was scoffed at for asking what the protests were about --not that there’s an easy answer to such a question.

For over a decade now it's been hard for Americans to exercise constitutionally protected rights of free assembly due to fears generated by the trumped up war on terror and the burgeoning bureaucracy of an intolerant security state. 

Thus it came as a breath of fresh air to see people in the streets of New York peacefully assembling in public thoroughfares to protest the inequities of the status quo.

In the next few days I saw much good cheer and uplifting vignettes of awakened political consciousness in the "Big Apple revolution" but there were also disturbing signs of groupthink coalescing as various political actors and media manipulators tried to harness the spontaneous energy and angst of a frustrated generation.

The OccupyWallStreet protests are said to be leaderless; even the Washington Post and New York Times chime in from their lofty perches to say so, but it doesn’t feel that way on the ground. Still, the appearance of a vacuum is sufficiently tempting for those who fancy themselves natural leaders of the American people to join the bandwagon, gushing with opportunistic goodwill and condescending advice.

In no time at all, seasoned political “liberals” such as Al Sharpton, George Soros and Nancy Pelosi were in the game, trying to join the bandwagon, while conservative voices such as Peter King, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney made shallow disparaging remarks typical of the US right-left culture divide of decades past. 

While moving amongst demonstrators in lower Manhattan, it is clear that some slogans are more equal than others, (just about anything with the mathematically spurious 99% claim is a crowd-pleaser, along with the binary good-bad pairings such as Wall Street vs Main Street and rich vs poor, etc.) Cardboard placards, on-line tweets and in-group chants converge in content and style. Statistical chance or hidden hand? 

The protests seem not so much scripted as improvised within secret guidelines zealously guarded by facilitators. The high degree of discipline, necessary to the success of any movement, is both imposed and self-imposed. Self-appointed crowd facilitators skillfully co-opt wide-eyed members of the crowd through subtle psychological control mechanisms.

The Occupy movement offers a new vocabulary for a new age, an assortment of odd terms not only geared to sound irresistibly hip to the wannabe, but which serve as a useful in-group marker and to some extent helps consolidate groupthink, if not a common ideology. 

Take free speech and democracy. Anyone who shows up for a “General Assembly” at a protest site, is, in theory, offered sixty seconds to express themselves. The mass deliberations are supposed to be proof of how democratic the movement is, though not much more than a sound-bite or introduction can be accomplished in the allotted amount of time. But the General Assembly is also a control mechanism, complete with a low-key bureaucracy at work, starting with volunteer security personnel, including US vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, authentication of visitors, facilitation working groups, a “stack keeper” who decides who gets to talk and in what order (with white males automatically sent to the bottom of the stack because they are presumably confident and like to talk) a “time keeper,” a “note-taker” and “mods” (moderators) for internet live streams. The evil genius of this form of free expression is that the conversation is hemmed in, subject to being steered and controlled, and anything less than glowing positive approval of what the facilitators are facilitating for can result in uncomfortable shunning or silence.

An eerie silent applause technique, said to be adopted from protests in Spain, is another crowd control technique, where an upward flutter of hands is construed as support, a downward flutter not so good.

There is the "mic check", a resourceful response to a police prohibition on microphones, in which listeners repeat in unison what speaker is trying to say. "Taking stack" is the job of the free speech dispatchers, “agenda items” steer discussion, a “report-back” sums it up. A "unity clap" concludes a session. If you don't make it into the “stack,” there is “soapbox” afterwards where one is free to ramble. There are “meditation flash mobs,” “rev fit” is health for revolutionaries, a “walk-out” is students cutting classes, “comfort” deals with showers, etc, and the “vibes-person” presumably monitors the mellowness of the mood. Women are sometimes described as “female-bodied persons” and politically correct terms like “people of color” are coin of the realm.

Yet strangely, as if taking a page from Homeland Security, there are color-coded alerts. Red means “blood,” blue means “fight,” green means “drugs” and white means “thief.”

There are calls to establish a "Liberty Plaza Anarchist College" While American-style anarchy co-mingles with the movement and gives it much of its flavor, there is a hidden hierarchy that is not anarchist at all.

If and when the first blood is drawn --a tragic inevitability in a movement that has goals of toppling the capitalist order and no intention to withdraw-- the self-serving strategy of the low-profile, hard-to-pinpoint crowd leadership will be vindicated. Those advocating revolt and issuing marching orders from the warmth and safety of a heated apartment in Berkeley, or wherever, while the masses confront the blue line of the police on the cold streets of Manhattan will have a lot to answer for.

For a clue as to where the groupthink and groupspeak of the nascent movement come from, one needs to look at Adbusters and Anonymous, the two declared sponsors of the aggressively-named “Occupy” protest that began in earnest on September 17, 2011.

Adbusters is a Vancouver-based media foundation whose eponymous magazine is the voice of an innovative movement that uses media technique to subvert mainstream media, especially advertising. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, and at times breathtakingly radical, the Canadian magazine’s senior editor, Micah White wrote a call for an “American Revolution” in June of this year, saying “we must be judicious and put the actions of the American government on trial before deciding if the sentence of execution by popular revolution is necessary and just.”

Disgruntled former supporters of Obama are already part of the protest, and if Adbusters’ anarchist opinionating and its militant collective statement are to be believed, the incumbent president need not bother trying. Should Obama opt to play the crowd card, he does so at great peril.

In using real names in association with ideas and propositions, Adbusters at least shows the courage of its convictions. Ditto for US Day of Rage which has played a quasi public role. Anonymous, however, works in the shadows, and presumably the techno-geeks like it that way. Even in the crowd there are those who hide in plain site, including the jokers who don the spooky Guy Fawkes masks, inspired from the film “V for Vendetta.” But where's the accountability, let alone democracy, in a group that hides behind an Internet invisibility cloak? 

For now, the behind-the-scenes deciders and influencers are biding their time, exerting influence in subtle ways while justifiably angry Americans take to the streets and make a bid to change the dominant ruling paradigm that favors corporations over individuals. Meanwhile, the feckless American mainstream media, (it took NPR nine days to even notice the protests and the NYT is still playing catch-up ball) has flip-flopped between dismissively ignoring the protests, adoring the protests and trying ride the publicity wave.

If any good is to come from the inevitable street clashes to come, it will be thanks to the quiet courage of a much put-upon populace breaking free by thinking free.
(posted October 11)