I'm sorry, but it's not supposed to be this easy.
It takes weeks of publicity, phone calls and logistics work to plan a demonstration of a few hundred people. But last Saturday, 100,000 people packed Times Square for an Occupy Wall Street protest that didn't even have its own flyer. This breaks every known law of activist physics.
Friends and neighbors are congratulating me because I've been waiting a long time for a moment like this. But I can't help wondering if they're also thinking to themselves, “Why was he always so busy? This mass protest thing seems pretty straightforward.”
But they haven't said that. In fact, everybody in this movement is being strangely supportive of each other. This 99 percent thing is powerful stuff.
I'm used to coalition meetings where people's behavior is the exact inverse of their stated politics: the liberals are ruthless; the socialists sociopathic; anarchists are power-mad.
The atmosphere couldn't be more different at Liberty Plaza. When people think that there's a problem at Occupy Wall Street (OWS), they don't storm out or write public letters of denunciation. Instead, they—and I'm still trying to wrap my head around this—try to fix it, often by starting a new working group that soon becomes an integral part of the movement.
In the same way, when OWS started getting big, people outside New York didn't complain about how backward and lame their own cities were. They started their own occupations. Even more amazingly, the folks in New York didn't then sniff that occupations weren't cool anymore, abandon OWS and start wearing ironic “I love 1%” T-shirts.
I'm not the only one weirded out by this confidence and unity on our side. The authorities in New York City have been completely thrown off their game. Sure, they've been brutal, but in such odd and unsystematic ways.
Modern police forces beat up protesters by putting on riot gear and moving in on their victims in a coordinated human wall. Not by designating one or two upper-level officers (wearing distinctive white shirts for all the video phones) to completely lose their shit at random moments and start swinging wildly. These people act like they've never been agents of repression before.
Governments around the world have developed a blueprint for dealing with mass protests: use some small acts of property destruction (or send in some provocateurs to do it themselves), declare a state of emergency and shut the thing down.
Instead, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to clear the OWS encampment by innocently asking everybody to leave for just a few minutes while the park was cleaned—and, oh by the way, when they came back, they couldn't bring tents or sleeping bags, and lying down would be prohibited.
This is eerily similar to the government tactic against sit-down strikes imagined by Woody Allen in his classic “A Brief Yet Helpful Guide to Civil Disobedience:”
The trick is to remain seated until concessions are made, but…the government will try subtle means of making the striker rise. They may say, “Okay, everybody up, we're closing.” Or, “Can you get up for a minute, we'd just like to see how tall you are?”
What is Bloomberg going to try next? Perhaps he'll put on a fake mustache and walk around Zucotti Park, saying, “Hey man, I think those One Percent guys would totally hate it if we all went home” and “Brrr, I'm cold. Anybody else cold?”
According to Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, the owners of Zucotti Park tried a similar gambit. In a move pioneered by Bugs Bunny when he changed the words on the “Rabbit Hunting Season” sign, Brookfield Properties taped up a faux-granite sign in the park to make it seem as though tents and camping had always been prohibited. Somehow, the protesters weren't fooled.
All in all, the Occupy movement to this point has proceeded precisely the way a brand-new activist proposes it should at her first meeting: Let's choose a message that brings us all together, and then use Facebook to tell everyone about it. If we get enough people there and we all support each other, the police won't be able to stop us!
We all know what to do then: Politely explain to this poor naïve soul why that's never going to happen. Or just ignore her and get back to the urgent question of who's going to make the flyer. We're not going to get anywhere if nobody makes a flyer.