Is this ‘Monty Python’s Occupy Wall Street’?
The surreal protests in New York’s financial district will certainly leave the system shaking. With laughter.
They promised to ‘take down Wall Street’, to start a new American revolution modelled on the Arab Spring, to rally a crowd of 20,000 who would set up peaceful barricades in the ‘belly of the beast’ – the financial district of New York City – and camp out there for several months. Instead, the Occupy Wall Street campaign, a ‘leaderless resistance movement’, has out-Monty Pythoned the Flying Circus.
On Saturday 17 September, D-day for the Wall Street occupation, a couple of hundred anti-capitalist protesters descended on Wall Street, only to find it cordoned off by the New York Police Department, whose officers nearly outnumbered the scraggly protesters.
Protesters march around Arturo
Di Modica’s Charging Bull sculpture
in the financial district of NYC
The protesters gathered at Bowling Green Park. When I arrived, they were marching round and round the famous Charging Bull, a bronze sculpture which its designer, Arturo Di Modica, installed without permission after the stock market crash of 1987. He called it a symbol of the ‘strength, power and hope of the American people for the future’. On Saturday, sealed off by metal barricades and guarded by a handful of policemen, Di Modica’s boisterous piece of guerrilla art was treated as a symbol for bullish, thieving bankers and their government cronies.
While marching around the Charging Bull, protesters waved placards with slogans like ‘Your Day$ of Plenty Are Numbered’, ‘Revoke Corporate Personhood’, and ‘Get Your Money Out of Our Government’. They banged on drums and chanted: ‘Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!’
A masked protester takes a
stand against ‘capitalist pigs’
So this is what democracy looks like according to the aspiring Wall Street occupiers: A woman in pink tights and a pig mask held a giant pair of scissors and pretended to cut up a net that had the words ‘social safety net’ written across it. Another lady had written ‘Free Bradley Manning’ (the Wikileaks whistle-blower) in marker pen across her bare chest, which she happily exposed to photographers. Organisers held bouquets of flowers, which they dispensed to fellow protesters in a hippyish gesture. An elderly man wearing a rainbow-patterned knitted hat called himself ‘an old yippie’ and explained that his top priority is to legalise marijuana. Students from the Harvard Divinity School came to Bowling Green Park, as one of them told me, to ‘quell anger’ and to ‘reinforce the idea that Christ came to Earth to spread love; not to make CEOs richer but to help the poor and oppressed’.
The march around the bull ended when the flower-baring organisers made an announcement: there would be a session of ‘political yoga’ in the park. While some protesters made sun salutations, others listened to a young Beatnik-nostalgic reading out Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, while others yet touted socialist rags or tried to get signatories for a petition to free a black prisoner from death row.
‘Political yoga’ in Bowling Green Park
The exaggerated police presence and their street- and subway-shutdowns only gave the non-violence-glorifying protesters the opportunity to pass themselves off as put-upon guardians of democracy facing a jackbooted coordinated machine of oppression. When the cops started sealing off the park with metal barricades, the protesters moved to the adjacent plaza outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. By now, numbers had increased to a couple of thousand.
The chants became more varied, ranging from the self-help manual-like ‘I believe that we will win’, and the non-sequitur ‘free the people – don’t free the bankers’, to the youthfully enraged ‘No justice, no peace – fuck corporate greed’. There was then a new announcement that a ‘people’s assembly’ would begin so protesters stopped chanting and sat down, forming a circle.
A young man who later introduced himself to me as Edward T Hall III (he insisted ‘the third’ should be written in Roman numerals) acted as facilitator. Wearing neon-coloured bell-bottoms, a back-to-front baseball cap and bead necklaces, Edward lit up a joint and declared: ‘We need to agree on at least one demand. I suggest the elimination of corporate personhood.’ Those who concurred waved their hands in the air. Edward then explained that he believed he is an appropriate facilitator because he ‘happens to be a researcher in behavioural sciences’, at which point, to their credit, other protesters objected that the facilitator was talking too much. When, on the other side of the square, a man got into an argument with some police officers, the protesters interrupted their assembly, stood up and pointed towards the brawl and shouted ‘Don’t arrest that guy!’.
Edward T Hall III facilitates a ‘people’s assembly’ outside the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Over the next couple of days, after some failed attempts to march on Wall Street, the protesters set up camp at Zuccoti Park, a few hundred metres from Wall Street. There, they have been getting regular pizza deliveries from a local pizzeria which is apparently taking orders from protest-supporters around the world who are donating pizza pies to the protest camp. At least the anti-capitalists are helping to boost local businesses.
They have also managed to bring in a generator so that Mac Book-equipped protesters can keep updating their blogs and Twitter feeds. On Monday, at yet another assembly, speakers formed a line to voice their complaints and suggestions. They used a ‘human megaphone’ system to get their messages heard. Instead of speaking into a microphone or megaphone, anyone within earshot of the speaker repeats his or her words, sentence by sentence.
A woman campaigns for
the release of the US soldier
who leaked classified documents
The Occupy Wall Street network uses a leaderless approach to protest, which means no one is directly in charge, there are no organised marches with scheduled speeches or a clear list of demands. Instead, there’s a series of happenings, non-denominational prayer sessions, workshops in ‘anti-oppression strategies’, and discussion groups in which anyone can speak and draw up endless lists of suggestions. At Monday’s people’s assembly, one twentysomething man said ‘it’s been three days and we still don’t have a code of conduct’. He then read out his suggestions, jotted down on a piece of cardboard. They included ‘trying to keep a revolving point of view between age, gender and ethnicity’, ‘possibly thinking of having a smoking area’ and ‘not having sex on the tables’.
One thing the protesters were widely agreed upon was that they represented ‘the 99 per cent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the one per cent’. In fact, the movement has attracted a fraction of the promised crowd of 20,000 and yet they have taken it upon themselves to speak for 99 per cent of Americans. Sure, they have received support from a few celebrities, like comedian Roseanne Barr and rapper Lupe Fiasco, as well as from Twitterers around the world who are sending out 140-character messages of encouragement over the internet. But this is a degraded form of protest, with a hippy summer camp-like atmosphere, simplistic sloganeering and faux radicalism. For all their supposed outrageousness, the protesters repeated a lot of the thinking that dominates the political elite in America. For instance, banker-bashing has become a populist method among leaders keen to find an easy scapegoat for the economic mess, and behavioural science is a favoured discipline among politicians seeking to steer citizens into adopting certain behaviours.
Despite complaints about a ‘media blackout’, the Wall Street protests have received widespread coverage in mainstream and fringe outlets
Despite receiving widespread media coverage since Saturday’s initial attempt to ‘take Wall Street’, on Monday protesters were still complaining about a ‘media blackout’. The self-delusion and the childishness of this protest seems to be apparent to most of the 99 per cent of Americans who the protesters claim to represent, seeing as they haven’t bothered to join them in their pizza-catered Monty Pythonesque circus camp.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.
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