Protest and Direct Action

I’ve said very little about the “Occupy” movement because I don’t have particularly settled opinions about it. But one thing that struck me from the beginning is that one of the weaknesses of the movement politically was that it had almost no opportunities to engage in “direct action” – that is to say, protesting by actively obstructing an activity that their goal is to end.

The “gold standard” for direct action is the protests against segregation – lunch counter sit-ins and the like. These actions directly broke laws or rules that the protesters were arguing were unjust as such, and therefore forced the authorities either to back up injustice with force or back down. Most protest movements can’t do that. Anti-war protesters, for example, can disrupt military activities, for example, but such actions are generally much more difficult to achieve and, anyway, most such protestors don’t oppose the existence of the military, nor even all its activities, but rather object to a particular war as unjust. So there’s the real risk that such actions would be viewed simply as anti-military or even treasonous by observers. But protests without direct action lack comparable political impact.

Occupy Wall Street struck me from the beginning as more analogous to the latter case than the former. Few of those engaged in the protests believed that Wall Street – finance capitalism – should cease to exist as such (or, to the extent some did, they undoubtedly had incoherent ideas about what the end of finance capitalism would actually look like if it were to happen). The protests were in part aimed at economic developments (the rise of extreme inequality, mass unemployment) blamed, fairly or unfairly, on the operation of finance capitalism in our day, and in part aimed at specific failures of regulation. When I tried to think of possible direct action that the protesters could take, the only thing I could think of was trying to somehow obstruct the operation of servers used for high-frequency trading, which I suspect would be physically impossible without violence and, anyway, would be kind of an obscure target.

But Occupy Homes is a much better direction for the movement to take. While I suspect most people, and even most protestors, would agree that foreclosure as such isn’t unjust, there is a cogent argument to be made that the government should be doing more to prevent foreclosures right now. So obstructing that process would be the kind of direct action that I was wondering about.

Again, not making an argument about whether I agree or disagree. Just saying: from the standpoint of likely political effectiveness of the protests, this strikes me as a wise move on the part of the Occupy movement.