I can't help but compare the Occupy Wall Street protests to the movements that sprang up against corporate globalization at the end of the 1990s, most visibly at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. Like today's protests, those demonstrations were also marked by innovative coalitions among students, trade unions and environmentalists.
Here are the things I think today's activists are doing better than we did back then. We chose summits as our targets: the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, the G-8. Summits are transient by nature, and that made us transient too. We'd appear, grab world headlines, then disappear. After the 9/11 attacks, it was easy to sweep us away completely, at least in North America.
Today's protesters have chosen a fixed target: Wall Street, a symbol of the corporate takeover of democracy. And they have put no end date on their presence. This gives them time to put down roots, which is going to make it a lot harder to sweep them away, even if they get kicked out of one physical space.
Something else they are doing right: they have committed themselves to nonviolence and to being good neighbours to local businesses. That means broken windows and street fights aren't upstaging the message in the media. And when police attack peaceful occupiers (and the protesters catch it on camera), it generates tremendous sympathy for the cause.
A lot of people seem very agitated about the fact that this movement doesn't have a list of soundbite-ready demands and media-ready spokespeople. Personally I'm delighted that Occupy Wall Street hasn't given in to the hectoring for a list of "demands." This is a young movement still in the process of determining just how powerful it is, and that power will determine what demands are possible. Small movements have to settle for small reforms: big ones have the freedom to dream.
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the New York Times and #1 international bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This article was first published in The New York Times.
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