It took a while for the media to catch up with it, but the Occupy Wall Street protest seems to have gained traction—at least for now. Thousands of angry, disenfranchised, mostly young people have amassed themselves in a park near Wall Street for weeks now to rage against the capitalist machine.
The protest itself is, almost by design, not very well focused. It has become a channel for all kinds of grievances: Wall Street fat cats, corporate greed, and consumer excess in general. But other niche issues are represented as well. Some student protesters are mad about the cost of education. Others are furious about inaction on climate change. There are probably a few fuming about Dutch Elm Disease, or the near-cancellation of The Simpsons. The OWS is a clearinghouse of anger. If you’re mad about something, grab a drum and c’mon down!
Is the OWS movement a positive thing? What should we make of it?
The first thing to recognize is that Americans and Canadians live in countries that values freedom of expression. If your knee-jerk reaction is that these kinds of protests should be quelled by the police because they are expressing opinions you don’t like, think very carefully about what that would imply. Shutting down peaceful protest isn’t what our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is all about.
It’s also important to remember that many of these protesters are doing so because they feel they’ve lost all power and all voice to affect change. It’s similar to the US Tea Party movement; while the Tea Partiers and the OWS protesters are night and day in what they believe, they both feel they’ve been shut out of their country’s political and economic systems. They have no say, and they’re mad as hell about it. That they’ve found a way to express their dissatisfaction should be, at least on the surface, considered a good thing.
Thirdly, many people get involved in these kinds of movements not so much because they are angry, but because they are seeking community. The world can be a cold, nasty place. These kinds of protests can give outsiders a chance to “get in” on something. This happens all the time, usually in less angry pursuits. Many join bowling clubs not because they’re angry at the bowling pins, but simply to be part of something social. The OWS may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the fact that some are finding community in it can be viewed positively.
So far, the OWS has been mostly peaceful. Litter seems to be the biggest problem. Compared to other uprisings around the world (London this past summer, for example), the OWS movement has been relatively well behaved.
Canadians in general are not big social protest types, and the OWS demonstrations in Canadian cities are bound to be smaller and less energetic. Some of them may even seem a bit forced—and maybe for good reason. Canada’s situation is not America’s situation. Our banking system is not filled with rot to the degree it was on Wall Street. Income inequality has grown in Canada, but remains far less alarming than it is in the US. The “OWS: Canadian Edition” seems to be more in sympathy with our American neighbours than about Canada.
Critics of the OWS protests will be quick to dismiss the whole thing as a symptom of the “me” generation—young kids who don’t want to work, who want everything handed to them, who are spoiled and bratty and just want to smoke pot and bang on drums. They should stop this indulgent silliness and find a job, and if no job is available they should create one, the critics would say. Without question, some of the protesters are spoiled and have no work ethic. But surely not all of them can be painted with this brush. Many are intelligent, hard-working, and principled young people who simply feel their country slipping away. They feel powerless against a political and economic system stacked against them.
The OWS movement isn’t for everyone. Not all of us feel the same rage and desperation, nor do we need to attach ourselves to a group of furious, unshowered drummers just to find a community in which to belong. If you’re not one of these angry, disenfranchise people, go home tonight and be thankful.
But can anyone really say that everything on Wall Street (or any street) is perfect? And that the US political system is giving everyone a voice? Can anyone deny that the change that was promised needs to come a bit more quickly? Can we say that all social injustices have been eradicated?
If we cannot answer YES to these questions, give the OWS some time. It may well fizzle out when the cold weather sets in. Or, it could actually be the catalyst for change in the 21st century. We don’t know yet how it will play out, but all great change starts with anger. As long as it doesn’t get violent, let’s see what happens.