Much discussion has been flying across Internet lately regarding NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park. The evictions got me thinking back on the November 17th protests in the Czech Republic in 1989. I think there are a few things the OWS movement could learn from events in Prague so many years ago. (1) To call the situation in the US authoritarian disrespects what actual authoritarianism is.* And (2) for a protest movement to be effective, which presumably its participants want it to be, some kind of coherent structure should exist and cogent case be made regarding how change is to occur.
This isn’t to say that only under true authoritarianism should protest occur, that’s ridiculous. There are lots of things in the US worth demonstrating about. Actions in Zuccotti Park, and mayors like Michael Bloomberg, remind us why this is so. But while demonstrating and sloganeering may address expressive needs, they usually don’t address the need for application.
In the Czech Republic, in the years leading up to 1989, the organized Občanské fórum, or civic forum, acted as a kind of legitimate and negotiating support system through which the citizens of the Czech Republic were able to overthrow an actual authoritarian government non-violently. Sure it’s a little different when the issue is freedom as opposed to corruption or inequality or whatever, but the form of successful protest seems to me quite relevant. Not only were there lots of people in the streets, there was a recognized body negotiating with established authority figures, i.e., the Communists, how legislatively and constitutionally to implement change.
As much as many of us can sympathize with something like the general outline of the OWS movement, the movement’s inability to coherently structure its issues in order to enact legislative change remains troubling. Perhaps it wants fundamentally to work outside, in its view, the corrupt constraints of the current system, but that seems both to cling to a kind of naive utopianism as well as to wish away the often frustrating but also necessary and essential, intractable differences of pluralist democracy. There are strong differences of opinion that often cannot be harmonized, only at best sorted through. And it’s the way the sorting through happens that determines how democratic a government is.
But if OWS movement protesters inadequately structure themselves (understandable in a diverse gathering) it doesn’t mean that their more general message, as I understand it, of inequality, corporate malfeasance and governmental corruption, isn’t extremely important. It is, and definitely needs to be addressed. A massive interest-group imbalance is all too prevalent in the US democratic system. To me, this is what the OWS protest is trying to get at. It’s kind of frustrating to watch it flail around like it does, but that shouldn’t delegitimize the cause of, or reasons for, the flailing. It’s just that, as Julian Sanchez notes:
[I]f disagreement is real—if large numbers of my fellow citizens sincerely hold very different views about what policy is best—then protest, however vital as a consciousness raising tool, can only be a preparation for the more humdrum enterprise of convincing your neighbors with sustained arguments (or being convinced yourself), electing candidates, and all the rest. To imagine protest not as prologue to politics, but as a substitute for it, suggests a denial of the reality of pluralism, and an unwillingness to find out what democracy actually looks like.
* One of the better arguments I’ve heard as to why the evictions, as to their form if not their content, are acceptable is that parks are also and typically parks. Which is to say that while the US does honor far-reaching 1st Amendment rights, it also honors the right of public commons to be maintained as public commons. Tenting in city, state or national parks (for better or worse, I’m certainly guilty) is generally not covered by free-speech rights. Having said that, the way Bloomberg went about the evictions was both shady and deplorable. But then, Bloomberg has never been a fan of protests.