Occupy Wall Street: A New Era of Dissent in America?

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Union members and Occupy Wall Street protesters mass near Wall Street, New York, on Oct. 5, 2011. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/ Getty Images)

While left-wing dissent may have a long history in the U.S., so too do the impulses of knee-jerk cynicism and contempt for such radical display. Much of the initial coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Lower Manhattan — with the notable exception of some journalists, including my colleague Nate Rawlings — struggled to see past the drum circles and dreadlocks of the assembled throngs. Some mocked the pantomime utopianism of those gathered in Zuccotti Park. Others suggested the movement was too inchoate, too disorganized, too incoherent to affect any meaningful change.

But nearly a month on, it’s clear that Occupy Wall Street has struck a nerve, appealing to a wide cross-section of Americans who are hobbled by debt, fearful for the future and increasingly exasperated with ever-widening inequities in American society. According to organizers, the occupation at Zuccotti Park has spawned similar protests in over 100 U.S. cities. Moreover, it has galvanized momentum toward the Oct. 15 international day of action, a global day of protest against plutocracies the world over that was called months ago in Spain to mark five months of the indignado protests there, but seems to have now turned into a day of solidarity with the burgeoning movement across the Atlantic.

The success of Occupy Wall Street has surprised even some of its earliest participants. David Graeber, an American anthropologist on sabbatical from Goldsmiths College, University of London, attended some of the earliest August meetings ahead of the first action — a Sept. 17 march on Wall Street of some 5,000 people that culminated in a hard core group settling down in nearby Zuccotti Park. “When we kicked things off, I was worried I was going to get completely demoralized by the experience,” says Graeber, a veteran of the anti-globalization movement. “But it’s just worked.”

What makes Occupy Wall Street tick, say Graeber and a host of others engaged in the protest, is the very motley and decentralized — the word in protest circles is “horizontal” — nature of the movement that seems to have flummoxed quite a few journalists. Inspired by the revolutions of the Arab Spring and the longstanding protest movements still shaking Greece and Spain, Occupy Wall Street is essentially leaderless, fueled by social media and collective collaboration, operating on the consensus forged during twice-a-day meetings known as the General Assembly, where all are encouraged to participate.

(PHOTOS: Labor Unions March with Occupy Wall Street Protesters)

The influential leftist academics Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose co-authored books can be spotted in the hands of a bespectacled protester here and there in Zuccotti Park, see in this the rise of the “multitude” — in their (unfortunately) jargon-filled formulation, open, amorphous communities brought together by mediums such as the internet that can still challenge the prevailing structures of global capitalism. Hardt and Negri offered this analysis Tuesday on the website of Foreign Affairs:

No Martin Luther King, Jr. will emerge from the occupations of Wall Street and beyond. For better or worse — and we are certainly among those who find this a promising development — this emerging cycle of movements will express itself through horizontal participatory structures, without representatives. Such small-scale experiments in democratic organizing would have to be developed much further, of course, before they could articulate effective models for a social alternative, but they are already powerfully expressing the aspiration for a real democracy.

Real democracy is indeed the clarion call. “The U.S. goes around the world saying it represents democracy. But how many Americans have ever sat together and made a decision in a collective, democratic way,” asks Graeber, 50, who helped set up the first Occupy Wall Street General Assembly. “Maybe to order a pizza or pick a movie.” As protesters take aim at a political system they claim is wholly beholden to the interests of a corporate elite, the contrast repeatedly invoked is the sort of “direct democracy” taking place in spaces like Zuccotti Park and other “occupied” sites throughout the country. “When you experience something like this,” says Graeber, “it reminds you things don’t have to be the way they are. It changes your entire perspective about what can be achieved.” Graeber and other activists want the idea of the General Assembly to become contagious, springing up in communities across the country.

(MORE: Why the Washington Establishment Is Heeding Occupy Wall Street)

Still, while such rituals of consensus-building may energize a certain hard core of protesters, it’s difficult to see how it translates into a larger, national movement. Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University’s Journalism School and chair of its PhD program, says, ultimately, the power of Occupy Wall Street isn’t “absolutely what the people in the park say it’s about. This is now something between a motion and a movement. It’s gotten bigger, because obviously it has harnessed a sentiment that is widespread and profound. You don’t have to be partisan to say this is tapping into something popular.”

Gitlin knows a thing or two about how protest movements work. The president of Students for a Democratic Society — the leading anti-war group in the U.S. during the Vietnam War — for a spell in the mid-1960s, Gitlin was at the heart of an iconic, contentious moment for the radical left in America. He says there are few parallels to the present day, beginning with SDS’s more rigid, hierarchical structure. While the climate in which SDS operated in was fraught with antagonism and the threat of violence — both from the state and more radical elements within the movement — Gitlin says Occupy Wall Street “has been amazingly non-violent,” given its loose, potentially volatile cocktail of constituents from across a political spectrum.

(LIST: Top 10 American Protest Movements)

Moreover, despite condemnation from the Eric Cantors of the world, the atmosphere surrounding the protests has been largely benign. “When we started organizing against the war, we were a small minority, and we knew it,” says Gitlin. What’s happening now though, he says, is already being built off a “majority opinion in America” in favor of things like progressive taxation and measures to curb the excessive wealth of the vilified 1%.

But it’s far too early, say those involved with Occupy Wall Street, to start expecting the movement to define itself around a clear set of realizable demands. “We don’t want to be saying how much the Fed should be adjusting interest rates right now,” says Graeber. Yet, as many in Zuccotti Park now admit, there’s the growing possibility that some of Occupy Wall Street’s energy may be co-opted by more conventional organizations — in particular, a wing of the Democratic party.

That’s a prospect that interests few I’ve spoken with in Zuccotti Park, many of whom consider the Democrats to be as in cahoots with lobbyists and corporate interests as the Republicans. (For that reason, many also bristle at being labeled a left-wing version of the GOP-revitalizing Tea Party: a movement, which unlike what’s taking place now, has been largely populated by a demographic that is disproportionately white, wealthy and old.) Negotiating grievances and differences that may pop up in the weeks to come could prove the toughest task yet for a consensus-driven, “horizontal” movement like Occupy Wall Street. “There are guaranteed to be tensions in any movement of substance,” says Gitlin. “The challenge [for Occupy Wall Street] will be to keep those tensions in bounds.”

On the ground, uncertainty over what’s to come mirrors the palpable excitement of those committed to camp out in the park indefinitely. “It’s clear many aren’t going to leave [Zuccotti Park] after a piece of legislation [gets passed],” says Gitlin. “They’re after a more transcendent sense of change.” When asked what it would take to empty Zuccotti Park now, Graeber echoes the steely sense of purpose of many of the protesters: “It’s not going to empty by itself. Maybe when [the police] come with guns. And maybe not even then.”

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Ishaan Tharoor is a writer for TIME and editor of Global Spin. You can find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.

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