Sometime in July, the people behind the initial call to “Occupy Wall Street” released a promotional flyer as breathtakingly beautiful as it was dissonant. The sepia-toned image showed the iconic bronze bull statue of Bowling Green Park, an instantly recognizable symbol of American high finance. Instead of appearing as it would to anyone walking through Downtown Manhattan in real-life, though – flanked by shuffling bankers and camera-wielding Japanese tourists – the bull in the flyer served as the base where a ballet dancer stood graciously en pointe. Behind the statue, a fog of smoke enveloped a scrum of people in assorted gas masks, in a scene seemingly straight out of the 1999 WTO riots.
That was the first image the world would see related to the “Occupy Wall Street” protest. It’s only gotten weirder since then.
While Monday saw a break in what some of the protest participants had been calling a “media blackout,” with hundreds of stories being broadcast by major national media outlets who had previously chosen not to dedicate any real estate to the protest, most of the coverage focused on the violent arrests and eviction threats protesters faced over the weekend.
This is a fine story, but alas, it is the conventional story every metro reporter gets to file after a demonstration goes awry for whatever reason: banners, slogans, singing, and then... cops, shoving, mace, arrests. The story that isn’t being told, however, is the one that explains why “Occupy Wall Street” is not your standard chant-and-rally demonstration, but a politicized street performance that’s not precisely art and not precisely activism.
“Occupy Wall Street” started out as the brainchild of the AdBusters Culturejamming Headquarters, an anti-consumerist organization that spreads its gospel of use-less-live-better through subversive anti-advertising. A self-described collection of “artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators, and entrepreneurs,” they are essentially a group of very clever non-conformists who do things like paint poignantly humorous graffiti over billboards, convene flashmobs, Google-bomb government officials, and organize purposely non-active mass actions like “Buy Nothing Day.” In the tradition of Vonnegut, or the Yippies, they are masters of the art of the absurd.
Joining AdBusters as organizers has been Anonymous, a fluid international group of hackers and their supporters who, through various (sometimes illegal) tactics aim to promote the same transparency that exists online (where anything could be hacked and, therefore, exposed) in offline society. Anonymous, whoever they are, bask in the mystique associated with their name, issue statements referring to themselves as “we” and “Legion” and, when appearing in public, wear masks. They, too, are masters of the absurd.
It is no surprise the resulting protest has been nothing but a theater of the absurd. After getting to the day of the protest without a firm grasp of how the organizers would be able to feed everyone who decided to show up (a situation that resulted in a hilarious online discussion among the organizers as relative drawbacks of serving peanut butter sandwiches [too many people allergic to nuts], rice and beans [plates and spoons required], or hummus and pita [too expensive]), the protesters ended up feeding themselves with the help of well-honed dumpster divers, only to be later bombarded with free pizzas. “Stop sending pizza. There’s a mountain of it,” declared the protesters, via one of Anonymous’ Twitter accounts, while asking for other donations Saturday. Absurd.
One they got started, the protesters decided to use Zuccoti Park, an open space across from the World Trade Center site, as their staging and camp ground . Except they later had to worry that they might be evicted upon realizing the unfenced urban plaza is technically a “private park for public use.” (Absurd!) They then decided to hire a lawyer pro bono to deal with any issues but, since they fashion themselves a ‘leaderless organization’, they had two randomly-selected members of the group sign the lawyer’s retainer. Absurd.
The demonstrations themselves haven’t been any more conventional. A photograph widely circulated over the weekend showed a topless blonde (part of a wider topless demonstration) standing in the middle of the New York financial district, holding a sign that read “Stop Looking. Start Listening.” Absurd. This would not be the only action worthy of a Kafka vignette the protesters would pull last week. On Friday, several protesters infiltrated an art auction at Sotheby’s and began a serial demonstration, continually interrupting millionaires spending tens of thousands of dollars on art with impassioned rants against capitalism. Absurd.
Elderly women sitting down to protest by knitting, people marching in Guy Fawkes masks, even Michael Moore showing up sans loudspeaker have all been part of this unconventional protest.
But behind all the incongruity, a philosophical turning of the tables lurks. Behind the showmanship, an ideological jiu-jitsu that seems to say “We’re not crazy. The rest of the world is.”
“You are in debt to people who make money by moving money from place to place using computers,” a communiqué sent out by the organizers Sept. 24. And that, seem to be saying the protesters, that really is absurd.