/ 11 October 2011

Occupational hazards: Privileged protesters or voice for the voiceless?

The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have defied many of its early critics, with tens of thousands of people still supporting those camped out at New York’s financial centre and the heart of US capitalism a month after the protests started.

It has since spread to over 70 cities across the globe.

See a map of events around the world here.

South African “occupations” are planned to begin on October 15, with protests organised for Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, East London and Grahamstown.

The movement has been supported by many high profile activists, such as Naomi Klein and Slavoj Zizek, but has also been criticised for mainly appealling to a privileged few, given the fact that much of the activity was organised and publicised over the internet and through social networking sites.

Like many anti-capitalism and anti-government protests that have gone before, the crowd’s profile has been scrutinised. Are these the people who really should be protesting? And, if not, are those who have a voice allowed to speak for the voiceless?

It is certainly a complex issue, and one that perturbs both those who support such movements as much as it is cited as a problem by those who do not. But it seems that, perhaps because of widespread media coverage of the event, the demographics of the Wall Street crowd, and those participating in similar actions around the world, is changing.

Those expecting the crowd to be made up of bored white kids in faded Rage Against the Machine t-shirts and a library of Michael Moore DVDs would probably be surprised by the diversity (in terms of age, class and race) that is reflected.

And the issues that are being raised are broad enough to affect people from all walks of life — the “99%” the movement claims to represent does not have one face.

Rich kids with nothing to protest about? Rage Against the Machine’s video for Sleep Now in the Fire was filmed on Wall Street and directed by documentary activist Michael Moore.

Another surprising aspect of the movements around the world has been the support and advice given to occupiers from conservatives to anarchist groups.

So will the local movement be supported and taken seriously? How can what started as a US movement be relevant locally? Will it be more than a bunch of kids coming along because they saw it on Facebook? Flash mobs are so last decade, after all.

Aragorn Eloff, a documentary filmmaker and anarchist who has been in contact with some of those involved in the Wall Street protest, is positive that the local movement will have its own momentum.

“We live in one of the most unequal societies on earth; this inequality is perpetuated by capitalism and the state and thus we as South Africans find easy affinity with those occupying Wall Street and other US and European locations. The occupation will provide a platform for various social movements to air their grievances and demand service delivery [even though, in many cases, this demand is rhetorical and intended primarily as a demonstration of the state’s inability to deliver on its promises].”

He pointed out that South Africa has a history of struggle and protest, which has continued to inspire many protest groups and movements. “There were over a thousand protests in South Africa last year! South Africa is home to a number of grassroots poor people’s movements, such as the Anti-Eviction Campaign, The Landless People’s Movement and Abahlali baseMjondolo. We can expect to see these and other groups, as well as a number of independent trade unions, taking part in the occupation.”

Local efforts are showing early signs of being surprisingly diverse, but whether that will be reflected remains to be seen.

“I was at a fascinating public meeting for the Cape Town occupation yesterday [Monday]. There were about 10 whities who knew about it via Facebook and about 80 people of colour from Khayelitsha, Mitchell’s Plain, Blikkiesdorp, Symphony Way and similar, many of them representing different social movements. The clash of values between the middle-class whities, who were all chattering about how we should coordinate actions on the day via Twitter and smartphones, and the poor and working class folks, most of whom don’t have access to a computer, was in turns fascinating, depressing, infuriating and humbling.”

Eloff adds that this gives the movement some gravitas, “even if the people who hear about it on the internet and arrive in their own cars will mostly leave on Saturday night for drinks on Long Street, and even though it was originally suggested on the internet by a bunch of relatively privileged kids”.

And those “privileged kids” should, perhaps, not be so easily dismissed.

“White kids who listen to Rage Against the Machine and call themselves activists are active relative to their context. If they seem ignorant and entitled in how they choose to act, well, kudos to them nonetheless for showing up and trying to break out of a system that benefits them more than most.”

There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about efforts such as this, no matter how deeply you sympathise with the ideals behind them. Revolution has never been more fashionable, after all. But whether it is a trend that will catch on here, only time will tell.