Occupy Boston: Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

“We are the 99%. And so are you!”

Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!”

Across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, protesters hold signs and recite chants denouncing Wall Street tycoons and the American political ruling class. Many call for an end to the war in Afghanistan or urge support for a myriad of other anti-establishment causes. The members of the Occupy Boston movement, the local offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City, have turned Dewey Square into a fully functional camp in the spirit of a commune. They do not plan on going anywhere anytime soon.

Northeastern University students are among the protesters. Wednesday, October 5, a small group staged a walkout, and on Monday several dozen Huskies marched from the Krentzman Quad to join other Boston-area university students at a rally on the Boston Common. Like all the protesters, Northeastern students at Occupy Boston share dissatisfaction with the growing wealth disparity[i] in the United States and the ability of the American political system to effect progressive change. Their action and enthusiasm should do much to quell concerns that our generation is apathetic or uninterested in addressing political and social issues. Yet the potential of Occupy Boston to effect meaningful change remains limited. By eschewing a cohesive agenda of goals, shunning organizational hierarchy, and dismissing the value of directly engaging our already-existing representative democracy, the Occupy movement is largely ineffective as a vehicle for political, economic, and social change.

This is not to say that student participants are not inspired by a desire for meaningful civic engagement. The student protesters I met are passionate, articulate, and eager to play a role in bringing about progressive change. For some students, Occupy Boston marks the first time they have actively participated in our democracy or feel that they have a voice. For others who have long been politically active, the movement represents a unique opportunity for activism that our generation has perhaps never seen.

Zoe Wolf, a senior Political Science major who has been active in Occupy Boston since the first organizing meeting more than two weeks ago, spoke passionately at Krentzman Quad on Monday about the need for restricting the control that corporations have over our political system and the opportunity for youth to be a driving force for reform.

“I think this is the first organized, cohesive movement in our generation,” she said. “I’m really excited about the potential for change and the fact that I’m looking around at all of these people who, for the first time, seem engaged and excited about having a say in their democracy.”

One of those students is Casey Herz, a philosophy major, who prior to Wednesday had never participated in a protest. On Sunday, I watched Herz facilitate a General Assembly at Dewey Square. The nightly General Assemblies offer protesters an opportunity to debate proposals that seek to refine the mission of Occupy Boston. These meetings reflect the protesters’ belief in direct democracy and the consensus-building spirit of the movement.

“With Obama, everyone felt that we had an opportunity to change things through electoral politics, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case,” said Herz. The General Assemblies present an opportunity, he said, “To come together as one, to have a discourse. What people are so frustrated about is: what are the solutions? But solutions don’t come overnight. This is the beginning, and we’re getting people together to discuss problems and find solutions.”

But an overemphasis on process at the expense of progress only frustrates protesters’ aims and makes perfect the enemy of good. I spent a full hour at Sunday night’s General Assembly and during that time no substantive proposals were made. Participants spent most of the time debating the definition of procedural motions before moving on to reports from the Occupy Boston working groups, including the Allies Against Racism and the Queer/Trans Caucus.

These working groups expressed concern that racism and sexual intimidation were occurring within the camp and threatening the movement. Surely such problems will emerge within any large community and ought to be addressed. But the outsized focus of the protesters on issues within their camp appears to be crowding out more important discussions about collective political goals. By focusing on creating an idyllic community at Dewey Square rather than devoting time to tackling social ills in the wider community, the protesters confuse their means with their objectives.

Protests are an important tool for political action, but they are just one tool. The man whose only tool is a hammer views every problem as a nail, and the Dewey Square protesters seem to view the Occupy Boston protests as a hammer than can be applied to any and all social problems. Effective political action requires a comprehensive strategy that directly engages the legislative process, electoral politics, and the media. Occupy Boston seems unwilling or unable to do so.

Students camping out at Dewey Square would better spend their time organizing coordinated outreach to congressmen, state representatives, and city councilors. In Boston, our state’s capital, students have extraordinary access to elected representatives who can directly initiate reforms. If these representatives are unresponsive, then the 2012 elections offer a chance to elect new leaders. And rather than dismissing the media as a tool of corporate interests, protesters could submit their own op-eds and letters to the editor in an effort to spread their message to the broader public.

But all of these tasks are difficult to accomplish without a concrete set of objectives. During the 2008 presidential election, enthusiastic young Americans coalesced around Barack Obama, embracing his message of hope and change. Yet Obama’s messages were vague and lacking a clear agenda on specific issues. His supporters responded by projecting onto Obama their image of what the ideal candidate should be, regardless of whether he actually embodied that image.

Now, three years into the Obama presidency, many of his supporters are disappointed with the policies Obama actually chose to pursue. Similarly, the enthusiastic young protesters in Dewey Square have projected onto this movement their individual visions of what they hope to achieve, regardless of whether the protests are actually designed to achieve those goals. Without a clear agenda, Occupy Boston will likely yield only further disaffection and disappointment.

The students participating in Occupy Boston seem undeterred by criticism that their movement lacks a cohesive set of goals. Wolf challenged the premise, stating, “I do see a very cohesive idea that runs behind all of this, which is that we want more equality, and we don’t want the power taken out of our hands by the elites anymore.”

This may be so, but a unified sense of purpose is not synonymous with having a clear and defined set of achievable goals, and the consensus-based process used by Occupy Boston will not be effective in developing such an agenda. Action requires leadership and structure. Organizational hierarchy and strong leadership are not antithetical to democratic governance, so long as sufficient checks and balances are in place to ensure that those in leadership positions are held accountable by the people. An entirely consensus-based process of decision-making will fail in effecting social and political change in a timely or effective manner.

The enthusiasm and spirit of the protesters including the Northeastern participants is laudable. Our generation must demand reforms if we wish to see a fairer economic playing field and a political system freed of excessive corporate control. But it is equally critical that we do not squander the opportunity that we have at this moment; without a clear vision of goals or strategy for success, Occupy Boston risks doing just that.

[i] Emmanuel Saez, “Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2008 estimates),” 17 July 2010,  http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2008.pdf

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