Political and economic systems have a lot of inertia. Once they are up and running, once people come to see them as “normal” they move along with apparent stability, even when in retrospect we see that they were in crisis. Or, as has been the case with the past few years, the crisis seems evident but the system carries on without fundamental change, seemingly undaunted by protest, criticism, and resistance.
Until something gains traction.
Eight months ago I asked whether the protests in Wisconsin to oppose the radical restructuring of the state’s political economy were becoming “the movement we’ve been waiting for”? I concluded, “When the demand to protect public-sector collective bargaining becomes a demand to restore public services generally, we’ll be on the way.” Now, clearly, we’re on our way. Where to? We don’t know yet, but we are rolling.
Tomorrow morning the NYPD will be rolling too. Rolling in to Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square to remove the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Just a cleaning say city officials, but afterwards there will be no more camping out. As the Guardian reports it, the park’s private owners “appear to have had enough of their uninvited guests and have ordered a cleanup to begin at 7am on Friday.” The occupiers have offered to clean the park themselves, and are ready for a showdown, perhaps any time after midnight.
Given the militarization of the NYPD, if Mayor Bloomberg wants the protesters out they’ll be out. Afterwards, there will likely be days or even weeks of civil disobedience aiming to reoccupy the park, and the police will probably win that battle too.
But the occupation of a particular plot of ground in New York City was not really the goal. The goal was to goad the scattered and demoralized into action. And as of today there are nearly 1,500 cities reporting some kind of event or action inspired by Occupy Wall Street, , according to Occupy Together. Mission accomplished.
Madison = Torque
Yet for all the drama of Occupy Wall Street, it has been much smaller and less sustained than the massive, and massively disruptive, occupation of the Wisconsin capitol building back in February. As Tom Morello described the feeling of being inside the rotunda and on the streets of Madison: “there was so much torque, and it really seemed like it could be something that was about much more than stopping one bad law.” So much torque, so much potential to turn the screw. But, he goes on, the energy was dissipated into recall elections rather than a general strike.
Could that have happened? Did labor leaders choke? For labor historians, it’s a familiar question. But the impact of the Madison protests was not lost on the leadership of the labor movement nationally. After a large delegation of Los Angeles unionists traveled to freezing cold Madison last winter the returned with a renewed sense of possibility. The vast protests, the occupation of the state capital, the solidarity between public and private sector unions, between firefighters, police, and everyone else, between union and nonunion, young and old. All of this was inspiring. So too was the surprising racial landscape of the protests. California unionists had grown used to seeing angry white people as their political and social enemies. The crowds and leadership in Madison were diverse, but they were paler by far than the typical neighborhood in Los Angeles County. To paraphrase one L.A. union official: if all those white people are on our side, we just might start winning again.
But it was a long summer as the Wisconsin and Ohio protests funneled their energy into state-level politics, the federal government careened toward default, and President Obama seemed incapable or unwilling to fight back. For the left, even for the unions (who are by no means all “left”), the mainstream of American politics has been hermetically sealed, a smooth ball with zero traction. No way to crack it open. No leverage. In the summer lull, the respected labor strategiest Stephen Lerner issued an appeal for labor to work more flexibly with non-labor groups: “Campaigns challenging corporate power can’t be held in check by institutions with too much to lose,” i.e., unions. And then along came Occupy Wall Street.
Less control. More agitation. More torque, more leverage. At least for now that appears to be the way forward.