The Occupy Movement and the Unruly Reclamation of Public Spaces:
Let's get pseudo-intellectual here for a moment:
Back in the old days that conservatives like to get all nostalgic about, people slept in the parks. In the days before air conditioning, when it got too hot for fans and windows to do the trick, people just brought their families to the parks and camped out. Here's how the New York Times wrote about it during a July 1904 heat wave: "On the east side last night the heat in the big tenements was unbearable, and the residents there vacated their homes early in the evening. The small parks were overrun, and many of the people went to the recreation piers. In the parks the people disregarded the 'Keep off the grass' signs, and many stretched out on the green lawns to spend the night there." Poor people violating the law in order to survive. That's not an overstatement. People were dying or going to the hospital because of the 95 degree weather.
Imagine that: as an ordinary event, thousands of impoverished people, many of them immigrants, the polyglot of languages, the smell of sweat and food, all gathering in public spaces. Yes, there were ordinances that were violated, but the times called for the restrictions to be eased. During the heat wave of August 1938, hundreds of thousands of people slept on beaches and in parks in New York City. When police arrested 60 men for sleeping in parks, the magistrate they were brought before released them and said, "I think we can all show a little leniency in these days of record-breaking heat." The city said that people could sleep outside until the heat broke.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of capitalist materialism in the United States has been to isolate us and keep us out of the public spaces for any purpose but those that are sanctioned by the Law and that have consumption as a purpose. In other words, recreation and leisure is fine - go to the park with your kids, go to a football game - but anything that is remotely challenging to the approbation of those with power (not just the 1%, but those who defend their interests all around us) must be condemned and confronted.
(An aside: This actually points up the major difference between the Tea Party and OWS: the Tea Party exists to give aid and comfort to the powerful, so, of course, it is met with mostly head-patting approval by officials and businesses.)
Public spaces, and parks especially, have meaning beyond just being play areas and homeless zoos. When all those poor people gathered in the heat in the early 20th century, they were merely doing what they knew. See, when conservatives talk about the way "neighbors" relied on each other, they forget that, minus TV, minus smart phones, minus the myriad alienating distractions that have been foisted upon us, and that we embrace, those same people would also talk politics, face to face, a great deal more than we do now. That's how movements started.
The genius (yes, genius) of OWS is that it's not being done online. Honestly, who gives a damn how many people sign an internet petition? Or how many people have signed up for MoveOn.org's stream of email? The Rude Pundit has done both, but he felt as if he had done almost nothing for a cause because he had. Down at Liberty Plaza, despite the wifi connectivity, everything is done in an affirming, low-tech way, and not just the human microphone. The schedule for the day is written up on a marker board. There's a library with actual books. People handout flyers. Artists work on signs. Others use stencils and spray paint to create t-shirt designs. And everyone talks. Any time the Rude Pundit has been there, either to interview people or just to take part, he has been able to simply enter into conversation, about the occupation, about the economic disparity in America, about what can be done.
What's frustrating for a media (and a citizenry) so used to talking points and soundbites is that consensus goals are not the point of OWS. Instead, it is to demonstrate how power can be wielded without money substituting for speech; it is the reclamation of a face-to-face dialogue that has been moderated and regulated and filtered through so many talk shows and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and, yes, blogs. Those things are necessary, but what's essential, and what OWS has reasserted in a way that hasn't been seen since the early 1970s, is that it occur, in large numbers, in the public space, in an unruly and confrontational way.
Of course the unruly must themselves be confronted violently by those who fear losing their control, who fear the collapse of a system they have fostered for decades. Because the Occupy Movement is engaging in a threatening activity. If they are communing, they are not consuming. If they are not consuming (in a really Marxist sense), they can lose their alienation and isolation.
Here's the kicker, though: The usual methods for regulating and controlling the public spaces aren't working this time. In fact, as it should, the more the powerful attempt to control the unruly in this case, the more the unruly attempt to take over the public space and enforce the "public" part.