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2012=1968?

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Anybody who says there’s such a thing as a totally nonhierarchical, agenda-less movement is not stupid, but dangerous, because somebody’s got to write the agendait doesn’t fall out of the sky, says Marom, who in some ways is Husain’s mirror image. A 25-year-old veteran of the New School occupation and co-founder of the quasi-socialist Organization for a Free Society, Marom was raised in Hoboken by Israeli parents and has lived in both a commune (in Israel) and a collective (in Crown Heights). Articulate and charismatic, he came to OWS with a bone-deep wariness toward many of the far left’s ingrained tendencies, notably the glorification of process and vagueness, he says.

At the outset, Marom represented one pole in a pivotal debate that illustrated immediately how easily OWS might be riven by factionalism: Should the occupation have demands? The media was asking incessantly what the protesters wanted. And so were important players in the institutional left. Early on, the unions came down and were trying to figure out how to plug in, recalls Teichberg. They said, We can’t get behind you until you have a concrete set of demands.’ 

Marom and others agreed that demands were necessary. Working families from the South Bronx aren’t gonna come to a general assembly for four hours to express their own demands, says Marom. Demands are one way for them to hear that it’s about them without them having to be there. Demands also give us clear markers and clear targets. If our demand is about housing, we know Chase is fucking over the housing market. Etcetera.

But the resistance to demands within OWS proved stronger than the pressure for them, and the former stance prevailed. For one thing, explains Michael Premo, a 29-year-old Brooklynite activist who has worked on issues from HIV/AIDS to housing since his teens, even people who are for demands can’t figure out what the demands should be. For another, although there were and are plenty of proposals that most OWSers could get behindfrom a moratorium on foreclosures to a hefty Wall Street transaction tax to debt forgiveness for student loansarticulating demands for any of them would exclude others. And at a time when the movement’s main goal is growth, that seems self-defeating. When we can put a million people on the Mall, says Berger, then we can have demands.

There is a subtler political logic in play here, too. The problem with demands, explains Marom, who says that in retrospect he is glad that he lost this debate, is they allow people to tune out. The Onion had a funny thing: The World Is Waiting for Occupy Wall Street to Articulate Demands So They Can Start Ignoring Them.’ The thing about Occupy Wall Street is, it’s so broadand imaginative that it allows everybody to hear themselves in it if they want to.

Columbia’s Todd Gitlin, the third president of Students for a Democratic Society and author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, agrees that too much is madeat least for nowof OWS’s absence of demands. The student-movement part of the civil-rights movement, its definitive call-and-response, was, What do you want? Freedom! When do you want it? Now!’  he points out. Is that a political program? Freedom?

Eschewing demands is one thing; eschewing any kind of engagement in the world of practical politics and governance is quite another, and on this issue a much deeper schism exists among the prime movers. So far that schism has been papered over, except in one notable instancea case that may prove an ominous portent for the future of OWS.

The march began in Zuccotti and ended in Foley Square in the mid-afternoon on the first Saturday in November. The crowd was maybe a thousand strong when it arrived in front of the New York State Supreme Court building. Some of the protesters tried to take the courthouse steps, only be met by a phalanx of cops sprinting over to block their path. Most of the marchers retreated to the center of the square, but a few who remained got rowdy. Shouting ensued. Scuffles, too. At least twenty people were arrested.

Which is to say, in most respects, it was just another day at OWS. But in one way it was novel: This was the first and only demonstration to date, as far as I can determine, aimed directly at Barack Obama.

The proximate cause of the protest was a proposed settlement between a coalition of state attorneys general and the country’s biggest banks in the months-long state and federal investigation of widespread mortgage fraudin particular, “robosigning. A few days earlier, Berger had heard that a deal worth north of $25 billion was close at hand; the White House and the Justice Department were leaning hard on the A.G.’s to get onboard.


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