In related news (literally), it’s almost impossible to find more information about this facet of the movement. Which is a shame, because it’s very very clever. There’s another glimpse of it in this video (1:41-1:49).
So there’s this really cool thing called neoteny. It’s “the retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles”. Some good examples are axolotls, a species of salamander that never make it out of the water, or flightless birds, which often resemble the chicks of other birds more serious about being birds.
When I discovered this biological phenomenon, I started thinking about its social and/or psychological and/or poetic ramifications. Was there a way to relate this marvel of zoological science to My Everyday Life?
And then I reexamined just how, exactly, I had come across neoteny. It was when I clicked on a link I found in a thread on WSO, the site I still navigate to sometimes because, you know, I’m a twenty-something with a lot of time on my hands who’s living back at home with his mommy and daddy.
Is it just me, or has the general e-clamor about Occupy Wall Street decreased since this past weekend’s Occupation Party in Times Square? Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, but in my experience, I’m noticing fewer and fewer articles, op-eds, and blogs about the whats and what’s happenings down in Zuccotti Park, and elsewhere around the country/world.
I don’t think I haven’t been looking hard enough. Heck, I even checked out the Williams Record to see if any current Ephs are writing. And someone is, and one phrase in the piece (which, for the record, I otherwise find pretty uninspired and/or short-sighted) jumped out at me: “The litany of interests within the Occupy movement has prevented the group from gaining traction.”
Now, this is a pretty standard complaint about OWS; namely, that the movement is too jumbled, or unfocused, to affect any “real” (i.e., policy) change. Last week, I didn’t really put much stock in this complaint, but now I’m having second thoughts. At the beginning of the week, I read a few articles (on cracked.com, and elsewhere) about how now was the time for the movement to step up its game and really get a move on - either by electing some leaders, or re-focusing, or something. I could see the logic behind these suggestions (ok, the movement got 20,000 people into Times Square, it’s obviously a big deal, it’s time to start becoming a more active participant in the (inter)national discourse) as much as I could see the logic in rejecting them (no, the movement should stay pure to its grassroots beginnings, the unfocused-ness of the movement is itself a key aspect of its “political disobedience”).
But the OWS homepage's calendar for this past week has mostly been a mixture of assemblies and events focused on what I see as secondary grievances of the movement; without getting specific, outcries that are more social in nature than economic (if we consider the economic disparity between the 99% and the 1% to be the “core” issue, at least in the sense of originality, of the movement). It seems to me like the movement has decided that it can take a week to build support, continuing a process of outreach and inclusion, instead of forging ahead with more large-scale protests like the Times Square Occupation Party.
I believe this is a mistake. That’s not to say that I don’t sympathize with the “peripheral” issues of OWS (quite the contrary) - nor do I think that the movement, in the long run, can’t support protests that are social in nature as opposed to economic. But now, in the admittedly-still-early days of the movement, what OWS needs is momentum. Momentum is how OWS will continue “gaining traction”.
So, today, I’m writing in that spirit. And to that end, I’ll throw out a few more links - and perhaps, in doing so, disprove the claim I made in my introductory paragraph. Check ‘em out: 1. Keith Boykin’s informative HuffPost article, “Everything The Media Told You About Occupy Wall Street Is Wrong” 2. A short video from the Transit Worker’s Union, meant, I think, to both advertise and support the movement 3. A NYTimes “roundup" of what’s been happening, in both the physical and literary worlds, in the past 36 hours or so
In which it turns out that I AM what democracy looks like
(Apologies, but not really, for the long post. Also sorry that I’m not posting any of the pictures I took today; turns out my smartphone has a dumb camera.)
As many people already know, today was a big day for the Occupy Wall Street movement. People closed their accounts at Citibank (and got arrested for trespassing), people got together and protested (and got arrested and/or beaten for it), people generally made a big fuss all over the city, and internationally.
I added my body to the mass of thousands who collected at Times Square this evening. I arrived at around 5:15pm, walking uptown on 7th ave, and discovered my first police barrier at 43rd street. Fair enough - peaceful protest calls for orderly conduct. So I swung around to 8th avenue to get farther uptown, meaning to poke my head in on 46th street and then keep on heading uptown. When I made it to 46th and 7th, I did my best to gauge the number of people congregated in the Square, which I admit was difficult to do; not only did the police barriers keep everyone to the sides of the main plaza, but it was very difficult to tell, at least for a while, who was a protestor and who was a tourist, just passing through.
That changed quickly enough, though. Just after 6pm, (nearly) right on schedule, a two-pronged march of people appeared, walking either up 7th avenue, or west on 46th from the direction of 6th avenue. Apparently, the two halves of the protest - there seemed to be one mass near 42nd, and another around me, at 46th - were trying to meet up. They met resistance, however, in the form of police - plainclothes and uniformed officers, riot police, and even cavalry - who were making sure that 7th avenue, which divided the two main masses of protestors, stayed open for vehicle traffic.
For a good long while, I stood on the foot of a light post, which would have afforded me a good vantage point if had been just a little closer to the action. So, at around 6:20pm, I moved closer, and ended up sitting on a police barrier perpendicular to the main barrier (approximately where the strange reflection is in the bottom-center of this picture). This position proved to be quite a treacherous one. As you can learn from varioustimelines of the evening’s events, 6:20pm or so is when thing started to heat up, and quickly. Within minutes of my arrival, the protestors around me had started pushing at the barriers in front of us, and police responded, forcefully pushing the barriers back. The barrier I was sitting on began to move as I was still on it; abruptly, I was no more than 10 feet from a mass of cops.
That was enough excitement for me, thank you very much - I shamelessly admit that I turned tail and retreated into the depths of the crowd at that point. And none too soon, too - as the timelines above suggest, things were only getting hairier by 6:30ish. When I saw the flatbed truck (featured in the picture I linked above) roll up, loaded as it was with more police barriers - and watched as those barriers were quickly being unloaded and placed around the protestors - I knew it was time for me to go.
I’m surprised to say that I can’t say for sure whether I’m done with physically attending OWS events - the energy I felt around me today was totally different from the mood I felt when I went to the GA in Washington Square Park last week, and I want to respect that energy. What I do know for sure, however, is that I don’t in any way consider myself an armchair activist anymore (or, as wikipedia derisively terms it, a Slacktivist). And that’s not just because “I was there” today.
No, it’s because, for a while, as I stood on my lightpost, I had the opportunity to observe a man handing out stacks and stacks of the Occupied Wall Street Journal (a national edition is set to issue next week). As he stood there in the middle of it all, periodically shouting things like “Who likes democracy?” and passing out papers, it occurred to me: what I do online, blogging and reblogging, is what he was doing there on the street. We’re both educating the people around us; I’m just doing it digitally, and to a different audience. Spreading the word matters. It’s as simple as that. Being out there protesting and chanting and whatnot may not be my cup of tea, but I can definitely support making sure that the people I care about have information about the things I care about.
OK. So I’ve got some firsthand experience with Occupy Wall Street now. This afternoon, I went down to Washington Square Park and was a participant in the afternoon General Assembly held there. Here is a picture!
Overall, I must admit that I had a very conflicted experience. In the spirit of Mic Check*, let me try to be concise, clear, and focused.
I will not deny that the amount of people at the Assembly was profound. Likewise, the main medium of communication, the human microphone*, was fascinating and motivating. And the level of organization in the movement of which I became aware was unexpected, and admirable. But generally speaking, I didn’t have the experience I expected to have this afternoon.
Maybe I set myself up with expectations that were too high. Maybe, in the wake of the satisfaction gained from reading an article online and immediately reblogging it, I was too impatient with the proceedings, and what they imply for the future, to really appreciate what was going on around me. Maybe I just expected something *more* to happen. Maybe I was too self-conscious to really give myself over to the social aspect of the movement, the meeting new people and just talking about stuff. Maybe the fact that the event I attended was at an “off-site” location, instead of at the “ground zero” of the movement, played a part in making things feel like they were a bit secondary, a bit removed. At any rate, whatever the reasons, I didn’t walk away from the General Assembly this afternoon galvanized in any appreciable, personal way. I didn’t see something happen, or experience something, and immediately think, “Yes. I need to be a part of this. I need to do more to involve myself here, in person, on the ground.”
Don’t get me wrong: my allegiance with, and support of, the OWS movement has not degraded in any way. If anything, seeing the crowd gathered, being a part of the human microphone, and learning more about the organization of the movement did nothing but increase my admiration for what’s going on. But I’m not sure if demonstrating is for me. Why not? Good question. I’m certainly going to keep thinking about it, don’t you worry. And I don’t think this will be my only attempt to get more involved with OWS, either. To write off the whole thing after just one afternoon would be doing both myself, and the movement, a disservice.
TL;DR: I’ve got more thinking to do about what part I’m going to play in OWS.
*Mic Check is the human-microphone system that OWS has come up with to make sure everyone hears what’s being said, without electronic amplification. Here’s how it works: someone on stage says something, then the audience repeats it, call-and-response style. If the crowd is big enough, there’s a tiered call-and-response effect, with multiple echoes per utterance of the orator. If things get out of sync, the system reboots with a few calls of “MIC CHECK!” Now, this is a fascinating process, for a few reasons. Firstly, it makes sure that the speakers are all clear, concise, and focused. Speeches take a long time, with this system, and everyone’s aware enough of this fact to keep things short; likewise, the speaker has to make sure they’re using just the words they want, and nothing superfluous (luckily, the hang-time between phrases gives those who are speaking extemporaneously a moment to plan their next words). Secondly - and even more powerfully, I think - it gets the audience really involved, on an almost psychosomatic level. We hear what the speaker is saying, take that information in, and then we shout it back, loudly. In a way, this process turns every audience member into a speaker as they internalize the words being said, and then make them their own with their own (collective) voice. Really cool stuff.
So there’s been a lot of stuff to be up-in-arms about lately (duh, say the people who have been fighting their various good fights for decades, and more). I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, for any number of reasons, and I thought I’d take a moment to actually write about it.
I get most of my information about the world these days from a combination of Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter - and when I’m diligent, this system seems to work pretty well. Examples: I followed the recent Troy Davis controversy from start to finish; thanks to a recent Williams event, I’m up to date on the Slutwalk movement; I’ve known about Occupy Wall Street far longer than my parents (who are just now learning about it from TV and radio).
But it’s a curious thing. My “involvement” with these various social “events” (for lack of a better catch-all term) is largely restricted to rebloging and/or posting news articles, quotations, and the like. That is, my “activism” is regulated to making sure that I help sites like these (that’s the Virtual March On Wall Street, from Moveon.org) get as much attention and internet-space as they deserve. But I haven’t done anything, physically. I haven’t written called a congressman (or even written an email), I haven’t gone down to Wall Street in any of my (appreciable) free time to join in the Occupation.
So… is what I’m doing activism? Am I an activist?
It’s a tough question to answer, but I think that’s because it suggests a false binary. Simply put: I think there are many types of activism these days, largely due to the myriad forms of media we as a society regularly consume, and the number of social networks in which we find ourselves involved. There is definitely value to reblogging, and posting status updates, and tweeting; as Occupy Wall Street has been teaching us in the past few days, the more attention a topic or movement gets, the stronger and more validated it becomes. If there exists some intangible “media attention threshold” above which a movement starts to receive some real press and starts gaining real momentum, then I’ve certainly been helping these various movements reach that threshold. (The very idea that there’s a “Virtual” March On Wall Street seems to strengthen this idea.)
But there’s also a certain amount of narcissism involved in being an “armchair activist”, isn’t there? Or, at the very least, a healthy dose of laziness? Is it really possible to meaningfully affect the world via digital means alone? Am I “making a difference” when I add a hashtag? How much good will that Virtual March actually do? Isn’t it possible that signing up will be enough for some people, that the act of writing down their message and sharing said message on Facebook or Twitter will ease some people into complacency - that they will click a few clicks, sit back, and think “Yup. I’ve done my part now. Activism complete.”
Is being an armchair activist enough?
I guess this is a long way of saying: I’m not sure anymore. I used to be more secure in my conviction that not everybody had to be an activist, that we could all be activists in our own separate and individual ways…but I’m beginning to question my judgment. If I truly believe in what the people down on Wall Street are Occupying about, shouldn’t I go down there and add my physical presence and voice, as opposed to just sitting here in my room and adding my digital ones? Am I letting others fight my battles, or do I just fight those same battles in a different mode? Is armchair activism helpful, and ultimately effective, or fruitless and, at its worst, trite?
TL;DR: I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be an activist, and questioning how we (and I, specifically) go about expressing that identity.