Time to out myself: while I believe that income inequality is a serious issue, I could never get fully behind Occupy Wall Street. I suspect this makes me the unfortunate petty bourgeoisie of today’s educated liberals, and yet I don’t think I’m alone in my reservations about Occupy.
Even though I couldn’t fully get behind Occupy, I would never entirely slag them off either. I’d sometimes argue with people who derided them as hippies, hipsters, and moochers, or those who would simply say “They should just get a job.” At the core of Occupy was a worthwhile cause given the realities of the working poor and the way that wealth is currently distributed throughout the globe. (A study in late May found that the 1% now controls 39% of the world’s wealth.)
I think being in this in-between state on Occupy is actually what made me appreciate 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film. Since it’s preaching to the choir and it’s obviously liberal red meat (or maybe seitan for the vegans), I don’t see the film changing anyone’s mind on Occupy. And yet the film does manage to offer a critical voice in Naomi Wolf, who succinctly expressed the same qualms about Occupy that I had: yeah, this is great in theory, but maybe it’s also bulls**t in practice.
[For the next two weeks we will be covering the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, which runs from June 13th to June 23rd. The films at the festival are dedicated to bringing awareness to human rights issues around the world and laying the groundwork for justice and change. For more information and a full schedule, visit ff.hrw.org.]
99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film
Directors: Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read, Nina Krstic
Release Date: TBD
Wolf’s skepticism is based on the decentralized leadership and the ultimate end goal of Occupy. At one point Wolf says that decentralized leadership models just don’t work, and that she can show multiple examples of these kinds of movements collapsing because of how unwieldy and disorganized they are. Some of the Occupy movement felt that this decentralization was the strength of the movement, but I wonder why. It seemed to cause some level of diffusion and sloppiness around the key message of income inequality, and it made those assemblies and speeches seem unfocused. (And don’t get me started on the well-meaning but annoying human microphone.)
I don’t know what the movement would have looked like if Adbusters, one of the key groups who initiated Occupy, had taken an active leadership role. I don’t think it would have been as widespread necessarily, and it probably wouldn’t have been as interesting. There’s a big difference in flavor between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, as the film highlights, and I wonder what the two camps actually thought of each other’s methods. Then again, there is a kind of leadership that emerges, with certain spokespeople and groups of people wresting more control than others. This dynamic doesn’t get explored much in the documentary. I think it’d be something worth examining in another film about decentralized organization.
Getting back to Wolf’s critique of Occupy, the ultimate goal of Occupy seemed flawed because it was not enough of a goal: to change the dialogue, to get a meme out into the public. Wolf calls it bullshit. Changing the dialogue doesn’t mean actual change. It may even be just what the people in power want: the mere appearance of change without actual change taking place. The path out of bullshit means more than just changing dialogue and perpetuating a meme — words need to become something, momentum needs to become movement.
Sure, there’s value in changing dialogue and there’s visibility in a hashtag, but to what end if it doesn’t mean action? President Obama mentioned income inequality in his 2012 State of the Union and mentioned raising the minimum wage in his 2013 State of the Union, but have there been actual strides toward change or just words? Will there be living wage jobs, or just rhetoric? The President may set an agenda, but it’s ultimately Congress that passes the laws, if they even bother to do their stupid jobs. Say what you will about the Tea Party, but at least they have sympathetic candidates in government getting nothing done.
This critique of Occupy isn’t the central focus of the Collaborative Film, though I think I honed in on it because I was a little surprised to find my own views reflected in the film. The focus of the documentary is actually pretty broad, and not everything quite fits together as neatly as it could. We hop between interviews with the protesters on the ground and with commentators, such as Wolf, Micah White of Adbusters, and Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone (aka the only reason to read Rolling Stone these days). There’s a look at how issues of police violence, the housing bubble, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, student debt, and the hardships of veterans back at home play into Occupy as a larger cause.
I think by taking such a broad approach with the topics and culling footage from more than 100 other filmmakers and protesters from around the country, the film winds up encapsulating the broad outrage that made Occupy possible. There are so many problems that have stemmed from corporate greed and bad politics, and this contributes to a sense of helplessness about our individual position in the world. A large expression of this anger, a collective expression even, is something that many people can get behind since it gives voice to frustration and shows others struggling with the same worries. While I think the end goals of the Arab Spring protests, the demonstrations in Spain, and the recent occupation of Taksim Square in Turkey are all different than those of Occupy Wall Street (and, to be honest, the London Riots), they are all expressions of a larger social outrage that are legitimate in their own ways even if they may be unfocused.
Occupy can do great things when they’ve got specific goals they’re working toward. The film shows some members of Occupy in Minnesota helping a woman whose house is being foreclosed. Though not explored in great detail, the documentary notes the way Occupy assisted in Hurricane Sandy relief, which was especially helpful in devastated parts of Staten Island and Far Rockaway that weren’t immediately accessible to Red Cross and FEMA resources.
It makes me wonder what the future is for Occupy, and I think if it has a future, it’s through these kinds of direct actions rather than through memes and shifts in language. You can’t kill an idea, but ideas can be forgotten if they’re not tied to worthwhile deeds that embody the spirit of the idea. Who knows what’s next.
The words at the end of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test encapsulate the whole generation of love: “We blew it.” All that hope to change the world for the better, and what is there to show for it by the end of the decade? Sadly little, and Altamont.
I think there’s a similar encapsulation of Occupy in this documentary from one of the protesters, though it comes early in the film: “We’re fucked anyway, so we might as well try something.”
Only time will tell if this was a hopeful message or not.
99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Friday, June 14 and Saturday, June 15. For tickets and more information, click here.