Saturday, September 17, 2011

OccupyWallStreet: American Tahrir Square?

September 17.  The New York Times writes that 1,000 people today converged on Wall Street. [9/19 ABC News and The Guardian of England put the number at 5,000.] The corporate-critical publication Adbusters, which spearheaded this action, had called for 20,000 people to occupy Wall Street not for a day but for a period of months, emulating the occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square that forced the ouster last February of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"Ragingly ignorant anti-capitalists"?

How credible is OccupyWallStreet? What do occupiers want? What impact might they have if they follow through on their pledge of a two-month occupation? And who are they: "ragingly ignorant anti-capitalists", as a TownHall commentator Erika Johnsen writes, or angry youth "united in the spirit of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries", as MarketWatch's Paul Farrell asserts?

Since last February I've been following worldwide explosion of youth unrest that began with the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. I took my cue from Peter Coy's prescient Youth Unemployment Time Bomb cover story in BloombergBusinessweek (2/2/11). Coy documents the spread of youth joblessness and disaffection "from  Cairo to London to Brooklyn" and attributes it to "failure—not just of young people to find a place in society, but of society itself to harness the energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm of the next generation." Coy's piece is proof positive that a corporate publication can give eloquent voice to the concerns of young people. A must-read.

9/17 - New York's finest protect Wall Street's Bull
In today's post I do two things. I review initial media coverage of OccupyWallStreet as a gauge of the movement's credibility as reflected in mainstream media. This credibility was minimal at the outset, at least by comparison with media coverage previous major demonstrations like the 1963 civic rights demonstration or the 1995 million man march. Until its dismissive account late today, even the local the New York Times had been silent on this protest. So had the local Wall Street Journal.

The story so far, as the Times tells it, is that police succeeded in blocking "protesters" (not occupiers) from access to Wall Street. End of story. Occupiers  marginalized. No interest in who they are, where they come from, what they want or whether other Americans might want what they want. The Times is keeping the lid on.

After reviewing media coverage, I look into what occupiers want. A quick preview: on September 6, Paul Farrell said occupiers "want their democracy back: One citizen. One dollar. One vote. Get the corrupting influence of money out of elections." Here's the USDayOfRage Principles Page.

OK. Back to media coverage. Check out these searches for "Occupy Wall Street"at Google (which gives a count of stories) Google News -- Google Video -- Google Blogs -- You Tube  -- and you may see something brewing. Ninety news stories as of the night of September 17, but four times that number four days later. Here is Google Trends. Initial coverage is at ABC News, CBS News, Fox News. CNNMoney and Agencefrancepresse, BloombergBusinessweek and a blog: TNGG (The Next Great Generation). [Reminder: results of these searches are current to moment of your search.]

[update 9/18] I am fascinated by lead story in the New York Times: "Tumult of Arab Spring Prompts Worries in Washington." Wow. Almost as if by magic, the Times in the space of 24 hours has managed to leapfrog over the mini Arab Spring in its own back yard and hop to Washington's global (not local, heaven forfend!) concern with a development whose significance, as I noted here last February, rivals that of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of communism in 1989.

That said, the Times story confirms  that Washington - the White House - is responding, with a touch of panic, to a degree of popular unrest not seen since the Vietnam and civil rights era of the late 1960's. One senses desperation in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's patently disingenuous plea that things are happening that "nobody could have imagined and few predicted just a few years ago”.

Nonsense. Journalists and academics, including Robert Fisk of The Independent in England, have for decades been warning about the inevitability of popular uprisings in the Middle East. Clinton's plea recalls President Obama's disingenuous plea that he didn't foresee - couldn't have foreseen - the financial meltdown of 2007-'08. And it recalls that utter failure of American intelligence services to detect either the rise of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Here's a live feed of the Occupation, taken from the OccupyWallStreet site, will all kinds of corporate sponsors, including Jack Daniel's Kentucky bourbon.

In a subsequent post, I'll give my own two cents on what it will take for the Wall Street Occupation to have constructive impact. For starters, here are six desiderata, most of them fairly obvious. I think.
  1. Leave the repair of our broken financial system to the next generation of leaders elected by a repaired electoral system. All of this, of course, will take years. But radical changes can occur in a matter of months if most Americans are behind them.
  2. Depolarize political discourse. Win equal support from left, center and right. Not necessarily broad popular support initially - that comes with time - but balanced support from left, center and right. 
  3. Win support from credible financial insiders. There are many! One is Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, which linked me the 9/06 Paul Farrell story quoted above. A good number of financial insiders will support the Wall Street Occupation if its focus is on credible change. (I'd mention politicians as well but name one that will sign on to the Occupation without looking for safety in numbers from their constituents.) Here, from Naked capitalism, are just two of many informed comments that point to what actually links the Occupiers, financial insiders and probably most Americans:
    1. The common thread of this week’s events is that national depositors and taxpayers are revolting against the idea that they should bear the risks of international finance and permit an elite class of global bankers such as Mr Adoboli – or the feckless citizens of other countries – to take the rewards.  
      1. John Gapper, from a column in the Financial Times on which Yves Smith comments and then invites reader comments, of which the comment below is a sample. 
    2. I think the US is absolutely ripe for forcing government action. The inchoate rage is palpable outside of elite circles. All that’s needed is to tap into it and channel it into something effective, garnering as much media attention as possible all the way. And if we don’t tap it and channel it, violent civil disorder is surely not far away.
  4. In orientation, be democratic capitalist, not anti-capitalist. Focus on electoral change that makes the system work for the many, not the few: "One citizen. One dollar. One vote." 
  5. Get on message and either stay on message or use online communications to generate an evolving messages that people really respond to. "One citizen. One dollar. One vote". Interesting to me, but is this message that Occupiers want? So far I don't see it in media accounts of the Occupation. What's more, this post at the OccupyWallStreet site seems to have backed off from it to embrace larger and as yet undefined messages: messages that are planned to take shape via online crowdsourcing: the use of online media to facilitate large-audience decision-making processes.   
  6. Gene Sharp
  7. Remain steadfastly non-violent. In the tradition of Gandhi, King and of Gene Sharp, whose writings online here have informed Arab Spring occupiers in Egypt and elsewhere. Amazing guy. 
It will be interesting to see what happens when Wall Street comes to work tomorrow. What Joe Kernan or  Becky Quick or Jim Cramer or Art Cashin be saying on CNBC. And how Bloomberg Financial will be covering it. Also be interesting to see if the old gray lady at the New York Times wakes up and changes her tune.

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