Ayesha Kazmi

Activism Street: Street Protests and Anonymous

In The Political on 28/09/2011 at 15:41

This article was originally published at http://www.presstorm.com

New York City’s Zuccotti Park has been “Liberty Park” to some for a week now. The number of protestors fluctuates between 200 and 500 at any given moment. Many of them routinely head home to shower, rest, regroup and return.

So what is it about this leaderless, directionless, “revolutionary” Occupy-Wall-Street movement that appeals to the protesters’ loyalties? So far, things haven’t gone to plan, with low turnouts, unpredictable police moods, inclement weather, infighting and, worse yet, an occupation of a random privately owned park approximately 300 metres off target.

The movement has already been termed a failure by onlookers scoffing at the hippies and “hipsters” throwing Frisbees and kicking hacky sacks whilst tweeting angst-ridden anti-establishment, anti-corporate messages from their I-phones all over twitter. Many mocked the dietary requests from some protesters – who receive daily food assistance from nameless donors – with vegan sensibilities. One thing is for sure. It’s not Tahrir Square.

Onlookers who manage to cut through the clouds of marijuana smoke, however, will be pleasantly surprised to see how many of the occupiers are there out of genuine belief. While the paradox between the anti-corporate goals of Occupy-Wall-Street and the bourgeois-consumer profile of some protesters is striking, the protest can’t be dismissed out of hand.

Many at Liberty Park epitomise the face of America’s shrinking middle class. They are students who graduated with piles of debt and degrees worth next to nothing in the current job market. They are mothers and fathers who were forced to default on their mortgages. They are people who now rely on the assistance of food pantries and soup kitchens. They are testimony to ever-increasing hopelessness.

Leave aside the unrealistic ambition of occupying Wall Street. Beneath the calls for 20,000 to engage in a camp-out revolution striking at the heart of the United States’ financial markets lies a more humble and truthful mission: “More than having any specific demand, I think the purpose of September 17th is to begin a conversation, as citizens affected by this financial system in collapse, as to how we’re going to fix it, as to what we’re going to do in order to make it work for us again,” said Justin Wedes, one of the organisers, on the opening day.

If Liberty Park is off target, it is because for many engaged in Occupy-Wall-Street, activism is a new venture prompted by the economic recession. Nevertheless, the inspiration from the Arab Spring is profound. Since the Adbusters’ conceptual call to occupy Wall Street in August, the idea caught the imagination of many online; most specifically on Twitter. Ambiguous organisations, calling themselves Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and US Day of Rage (USDOR), sprung up to push the idea. While OWS and USDOR may differ slightly in their stated objectives, the fact remains that the critical conversations Wedes envisioned are now taking place.

Then, there are the “groundfags” present at Liberty Park. “Groundfag” is a term used by hacker-activists, or “hacktivists”, Anonymous, to describe affiliated Anonymous activists on the ground engaging in street protests while providing regular updates. On the periphery of Liberty Park is a simultaneous Internet-culture jam buttressing the movement, with intellectuals and self-described traditional activists who use the Anonymous shield to “engage in acts they would normally not dare to”, according to one.

While tracing protesters such as Sonya Zink, who was detained by police for 25 hours on Tuesday for remonstrating while topless, Anonymous’ primary objective has been to set the tone for the Occupy-Wall-Street protests. When it emerged that a handful of activists were prepared to provoke police and incite riots days before Occupy-Wall-Street was to begin, Anonymous developed a Twitter application called URGE and launched an online campaign with the aim of quelling any potential violence. Anonymous used culture-jamming tactics on Twitter with messages to keep protests peaceful, using top Twitter trends from around the world.

Wednesday nights’ execution of Troy Davis has also given occupy Wall Street activists and “hacktivists” alike yet another rallying cry. Anonymous activists expressed outrage in the moments after Davis’ death was announced, linking the execution with the protests. On Thursday night, more than 1,500 new faces showed up at Liberty Park to join the most heated marches since last Saturday.

Chants of protesters proclaiming their ownership of the streets of New York City appear to be falling on deaf ears. President Barak Obama has been in New York this week to meet with the UN General Assembly on Palestinian statehood – yet there has been no acknowledgement from him about the occupy Wall Street protests blocks away nor their demands.  Critics may be correct: the occupy Wall Street protests are perhaps doomed to fizzle out given the bad weather and daily arrests.

Even if the occupation of Liberty Park dies out, they are far from ineffectual – the movement should be seen within its wider context of social movements emerging in the United States, and more importantly, worldwide. Social movements do not happen in isolation. Nor do they happen overnight.

  1. My greatest fear is that the protests might be unjustly and too swiftly silenced, or worse, sidelined by either mediatainment or corpropolitical ideologies.
    Made up words aside, I just hope that this leaderless horizontal movement can make some forward progress, or inspire others to make it, because right now their thousands of voices are being drowned about by millions more screaming for American Idol.

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