The radical power of just showing up

The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements show that simply standing together can achieve real results.

Occupy new jersey
Occupy Wall Street is “a refusal … to conform to an imposed script of appropriate citizen behaviour” [GALLO/GETTY]

The Arab Spring initiated a jarring series of events in 2011 that illustrate the radical political possibilities of just being present. When the regime won’t listen, when being heard as an individual isn’t really a viable option, simply standing together and being seen can be profoundly political and empowering.

But will just “being there” really bring significant change?

Revolutions never happen overnight. They result from accumulations of dozens, even hundreds of moments, often stretching over a period of years, that make possible the ruptures that emerge when vast numbers of people begin to imagine, and then to demand, an alternative to their living conditions. We have been seeing these moments over the past year, first in the Middle East but then spreading to England, Brazil, Spain, Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. In this sense, we are experiencing a revolutionary moment in which the popular perception of what is possible has indisputably shifted in a way unseen on a global scale since 1968.

This moment is revolutionary, even though revolutions are not imminent everywhere. People around the globe are simultaneously imagining alternatives to the conditions under which they live, and they recognise such movements taking place elsewhere and feel a connection, a kinship, with other who are taking to the streets and reclaiming public spaces. For some, the imagined future entails a fundamental change in the structures of government; for others, it entails an alternative to the economic status quo. But for all of them, often for the first time in generations, an alternative future feels possible and tangible rather than fantastical.

Revolutionary road

Revolutionary moments don’t always foster revolutions, of course. Political revolutions are only possible when the repressive security apparatuses that defend the regime – the army, the police, and other agencies of force – become divided. When armies divide, when some leaders and their troops defect, that is when a revolution becomes possible. But even this does not mean that a revolution will be successful. It can lead to a regime change, even a rapid or peaceful one, but more often it can lead to a bloody, protracted civil war. But for many of the citizens – albeit not for all of them – sustained bloodshed is preferable because it keeps alive the hope that an alternative future is finally within grasp. Witnessing people choose these bloody moments of possibility over the (sometimes bloody) status quo has a dramatic impact. If they can do it-when the obstacles they have successfully overcome were far more daunting than the ones we face – why are we acquiescing to the repressive conditions that limit the possibilities of our own lives?

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Although many hope to dismiss its potential, Occupy Wall Street represents just such a revolutionary moment. It is a politics of refusal because of its strong and sustained rejection of a system that dismisses the economic struggles of most of the people on the globe. It is a refusal to feel helpless and powerless in the face of economic policies that favour banks and corporations at the expense of flesh and blood. That refusal has been manifest in the retaking of public spaces, an outpouring of people into places where their frustrations and grievances become visible. Merely standing together in public can be a radical political act because governments around the world seek to control how public spaces are used, preserving them for certain kinds of loyal and conforming citizens. “Undesirables” – the homeless, the punks, skateboarders, graffiti artists, groups of young men, and of course protesters who question the prevailing political and economic policies – must all be cleared from those spaces, sometimes at high costs. Who is welcome? Nuclear families, particularly if they are spending money.

And our public spaces are being stolen from us in other ways: many of them have been silently privatised, so that pedestrian commercial malls appear to be public spaces but are not. If you buy a pumpkin latte, you are welcome to relax at a table or bench. If you cannot, or do not spend money to consume, you are loitering, trouble, out of place.

Occupy Wall Street represents a refusal of these and other exclusions, a refusal to conform to an imposed script of appropriate citizen behaviour at appropriate times. Perhaps most ironically, the protesters in Zuccotti Park have been able to remain there in part because it is a private space open to public access 24 hours a day. Its owner – despite considerable pressure – has not (yet) acted to have them removed. Public parks in NYC close at dusk.

Occupy Wall Street represents a revolutionary moment in another way: by refusing the notion that democratic politics has been reduced to standing in a voting queue every four years. Facebook and other social media have been important in connecting citizens, in allowing individuals to learn about and to explore alternative political visions, to discover social movements, and sometimes even to mobilise. But when politics is reduced to voting and to “liking” a page, democracy is impoverished. Even in the United States, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, corporations, and other key institutions of the American political regime want us to participate only in this limited fashion. It is not disruptive of their agendas, and it dramatically limits our ability to shape the public political discourse. Be good citizens. Behave. Go spend $4 on a latte; you can vote again next year.

One of the criticisms of Occupy Wall Street has been that it does not have a clear agenda. I have two comments on this. First, so what? We don’t yet know what kind of movement this will be, and all major movements begin with a sorting through of various claims and priorities. The labour movement in the United States was divided early on between advocates for craft workers and advocates for unskilled workers, but the movement sorted that out over time. This is how major movements evolve, and Occupy Wall Street is in its very early stages.

But second, I think it is a strength of the movement to not have a single, united agenda beyond “We are the 99 per cent”. In fact, this is precisely what is so unsettling to those in power, whether in the government or the parties or the CEOs of major corporations: the politics of being present and refusing to go away isn’t about a single agenda that can be engaged, critiqued, mocked, or rejected. It’s hard to characterise the crowds as radical anarchists (though parts of the media continue to perpetuate this fiction) when marines turn out to join the protest wearing their uniforms. When middle-aged unemployed women drive for hours to be a part of this crowd, instead of sending out yet another futile job application. When even parts of the 1 per cent – people who live in relative comfort but whose retirement accounts are evaporating – are making their way to public spaces around the United States to stand in solidarity with others. Those in power can ignore the powerful presence of such diverse and motivated crowds only at their peril.

‘Occupy Everywhere’

In this sense, global occupations, from Tahrir, to Placa de Catalunya, to Wall Street, are revolutionary moments. Citizens are stepping into public spaces, empowered by a sense of being a part of something different, and demanding, insisting, that they be acknowledged. These are not only radical political moments but also a politics of refusal. They are democratic moments, as well as profoundly human moments: when people stand together to face down a variety of institutions that crush the possibilities of our futures – politically, socially, and economically. This is a politics of just being there that insists – to borrow from the ACT UP movement of the 1980s that had a major impact on how we view AIDS – “We are here, and we are not going anywhere”.

Will Occupy Wall Street matter? Can this insistence that democratic participation not be reduced to voting queues and e-petitions help create an alternate future? I am reminded of a joke about Hosni Mubarak in the days before he was forced from office. The joke goes: One of Mubarak’s advisors said to him,”Mr President, I think you should prepare a farewell letter to your people.” To which he replied, “Why, where are they going?”

Mubarak was tone-deaf. He did not hear the voices of the Egyptian people, nor did he understand their politics of refusal as thousands, and then millions, took to the streets and refused to go away. The most powerful and immediate effect of Occupy Wall Street may also be profound: the movement could change the terms of the public discourse in the United States. The numbers of protesters will surely dwindle as the winter sets in, and critics will relish characterising the movement as a failure. But if the numbers begin to swell again in the spring, and should they continue through the election year – with growing crowds of citizens demanding to be recognised together despite having their individual grievances – Occupy Wall Street could extend the revolutionary moment that began in the Middle East. US politicians would be forced to listen seriously to their voices or else appear as tone deaf as Mubarak was.

Occupy Wall Street is unsettling and disarming to those who hold economic power precisely because it is about making our government more democratic, creating an economic system that is more fair to its citizens and more responsive to the needs of people, and not to the needs of corporations. I noted that revolutionary moments turn into revolutions only when the repressive forces maintaining the regime begin to divide. The 1 per cent can be split – and perhaps already is becoming divided. When it does, this revolutionary moment may turn revolutionary. An alternative future on a global scale is possible, and it may have never been more within reach. And even if gains are not imminent, people of every generation grasp the idea that they ought to have a direct say in the conditions that shape their lives. Indeed, they are now insisting on it. Nothing is more revolutionary.

Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faith in ‘Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen’ (Cambridge 2006).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.