Tax Day With The 99 Percent Spring: Occupy Nothing
By Fritz Tucker
24 April, 2012
Street Theatre off Broadway
Last Tuesday, April 17, I attended the 99% Spring's Tax Day protest in Midtown Manhattan. Around one-thousand people showed up to do the usual: marching, slogan-chanting, holding up signs, taking part in street-theatre. I did what I usually do when coerced into attending these events. I wandered around, talked to some strangers, made snarky comments about the chants and street-theatre, and discreetly discarded of every sign I was handed.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Arundhati Roy, who described to Al Jazeera why she supports the occasional use of this form of protests, but not an ideological adherence to it. By “the forest,” she is referring to central-India's jungles, where India's indigenous communities are fighting the state to keep their land.
“The Gandhian ethos is a very frightening ethos in the forest; because the Gandhian ethos [is a] performance that requires an audience... And in the forest, there's no audience… In a society that doesn't belong to the rest of society… how do hungry people go on a hunger strike? How do people who don't have any money not pay their taxes or do civil disobedience?”
Not having attended an overwhelming amount of protests, I thought this “performance that requires an audience” thing was a metaphor. Last Tuesday's Tax Day protest, however, was certainly a performance, complete with a team of Tax Dodgers in baseball uniforms, and cheerleaders with hula-hoops to represent tax loopholes.
The show started across the street from the new Bank of America skyscraper on 42nd Street and 6th Avenue. The first act was a mock trial for Bank of America, ExxonMobil and a few other major tax dodgers. A woman dressed as a colonial-era judge—powdered wig and all—read a list of grievances pertaining to taxes that were not paid by these corporations. The culprits—including two very white people in white-face—retorted that they didn't care, and wouldn't share their wealth, all using the exact same rhymes, which were less inspired than those of the guys hustling hip-hop tapes outside of the Empire State Building.
My favorite comment of the day came when Rose, my comrade in snark for the day, said something along the lines of, ‘so my partner and I were at a show the other day. And the opener was a performance artist, some girl dressed only in a unitard thong that just barely covered up her wee-bits. And her whole performance consisted of her sitting in front of a mirror crying and throwing Smarties candies at it. And that went over better than this.' It was true; the crowd seemed to get a bigger kick out of the guy in the audience shouting profanities in agreement with the charges than it did from the mock trial.
After the judgment was handed down, we began to march through Midtown. The streets were well guarded by hundreds of police. The mile-long route had been barricaded ahead of time to ensure nothing extraneous was occupied. Along the way, we stopped at a few locations: Chase Bank, Wells Fargo, Trump Tower. At each stop, a speech was delivered by a member of the groups that organized the march, including Move On, Make the Road, United NY, SEIU and CWA.
The two most inspiring speeches were about the prison industrial complex and the detention of undocumented people, both given by Latina women. Both of these speeches, however, were marred by their endings, which tried to blame these immense and complex problems on corporations not paying their taxes. Posing this as the heart of the problem lead one to believe that there's a simple solution—corporations should pay their taxes—and that this solution can be arrived at through legislation enacted by the Democratic Party. Rather than blaming the speakers, I got the sense that there were leaders behind the protest who had to approve of every message before it was allowed in the march. This suspicion was heightened when another friend informed me that a march organizer had told her not to hand out anti-war fliers. Almost every poster and piece of literature at the protest was professionally made, was about taxes, and was directed at corporations or Mitt Romney. The one hand-made sign I saw said something like, ‘I'm Gay, I Pay My Taxes. Corporations Should Pay Theirs.'
Everything about the protest made me long for the genuineness, creativity, and openness of Occupy Wall Street, which is ironic coming from somebody who was silenced by the facilitators during an OWS General Assembly . Similarly, I was put off by the protest's emphasis on spectacle and one-way communiqués. These communiqués, ostensibly about challenging and mocking authority, were given authority—when lacking in coherence and ability to agitate—by pompous, hyperbolic language, amplification, and a team of ‘marshals' whose job it was to surround the speaker and keep the crowd at bay. In the background, a team of people in red shirts buzzed about, talking to each other on headsets, making sure everything was going according to plan. Occupy Wall Street may have not been good at it , but structured, participatory activities and real communication—two, three, many-way-dialog—were central components of the Zuccotti Occupation. Furthermore, OWS' rudimentary public democracy gave it a degree of spontaneity completely lacking at the 99% Spring's Tax Day protest.
For reasons that I never completely became aware of, the march ended with a mass chant and dance across the street from the post office near Penn Station. I went home more pessimistic than I'd been since last September.
Moderate, Radical and Mass Movements
You can't help stumbling upon debate in the media these days about whether Occupy Wall Street is being co-opted by the 99 Percent Spring. I wrote about the coming co-option of OWS back in October , when the movement was only a month old, and have had the displeasure of seeing it happen from the inside. The answer to the co-option question, however, depends on what exactly a movement is.
Intuitively, I thought the 99% Spring was an attempt to co-opt OWS. My instincts were later affirmed by everything I saw, heard and read. Upon further thought, however, I believe that the 99% Spring is technically only co-opting Occupy Wall Street's slogans, and that the two are distinct movements that briefly came together last fall to form a mass movement.
Occupy Wall Street is the loudest, most influential part of the U.S. Occupy movement, which is a small and not particularly significant part of a worldwide mass movement led by Arabs, Persians and Southern Europeans. This movement is about physically wresting control over public—and private—space and replacing the ruling organizations with new ones. Its roots date back to Jesus' march on Jerusalem, the French, American and Bolshevik Revolutions, and the struggle for an independent India. It is important to note that this form of struggle—Occupy—also describes the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the French and British occupations of Africa and Asia, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, and the U.S. and Soviet occupations of Afghanistan. Thus, both the rulers and the radicals who fight to overthrow them can be considered occupiers.
The 99 Percent Spring, on the other hand, is part a movement amongst people who want things to be a little—but not fundamentally—different, and so appeal to society's rulers to tweak their policies. This movement can trace its roots to the Israelites who tentatively collaborated with the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, the Brahmans who collaborated with the British but were outraged when the British tried to tell them not to burn their widows alive, the Russians who collaborated with the Nazis—or the Stasi—and the Arab dictators who collaborate with Israel and the U.S. Since moderate “movements” are predicated on keeping the current society in place, a more accurate descriptor would be “statics.”
For anybody who desires a society fundamentally different from the one we live in, the moderate movement is only useful insofar as it facilitates the creation of radical “occupations” and alternative forms of human organization. Moderate movements, however, are usually much larger than radical movements. Radical progress is generally made only when radicals inspire mass movements. This involves the absorption of many former moderates into radical politics, something that generally happens only when the status-quo becomes intolerable to most rational people.
A friend and I have had a longstanding debate about the goals and tactics of mass movements. He's been arguing for the necessity of moderate goals in mass movements, partly because of the momentum moderate successes give radicals; I had been arguing that moderate demands are usually met in order to diminish the momentum of radicals. I recently realized, however, that both of these arguments were erroneous, being based on the belief that mass movements operated – like people – using rational thought and linear logic. Mass movements, instead, reveal the many lines of logic that exist among a society's inhabitants, the many emotions felt by the millions of people for myriad reasons, the level of organization among different segments of society.
Mass movements contain radical and moderate elements. The African-American struggle for equality was most often referred to as the “civil rights movement” because the Civil Rights Act's passage in 1964 was the ultimate goal of so many moderates—particularly the movement's white allies. This struggle was also referred to as the “civil rights movement” by moderate elements of the ruling class, who aimed to pacify the public with the narrative that progress is handed down by the government. One cannot blame the passage of the Civil Rights Act for the lag in momentum that occurred shortly afterward, for part of the movement existed only because of the popularity of that demand.
Similarly, one cannot one argue that because a popular demand has been met, the next popular demand will necessarily be more radical. Certain goals are focused on, and articulated in ways that catch the popular imagination, provoking masses of people to action. Nobody can tell what will spark mass movements; we can merely do our best. The African-American struggle for equality was less often—but commonly—referred to as the “black-nationalist struggle” by the African-American radicals who fought for independence, or the overthrow of the U.S. government. This struggle was also referred to as the “black-nationalist movement” by the most radical elements of the ruling class, to justify violent repression and to terrorize the public.
The Democratic Party and labor-union led 99 Percent Spring didn't co-opt a radical mass movement. Occupy Wall Street was only a mass movement when the Democrat's mass base and the labor-unions got involved, at which point it wasn't particularly radical. The 99% Spring – at least what I witnessed of it on Tax Day – is a separate movement, devoid of occupation and participatory organizational structures. It seems to be doing its best to recapture the hearts and minds of the many people who were radicalized last fall, as well as those who were disenchanted by OWS' shortcomings. In a testament to the power of language, however, the 99% Spring has blatantly co-opted the most popular slogan from Occupy Wall Street—“We Are The 99 Percent!”—which was an incredibly vague, meaningless slogan that practically begged co-option. While I'm happy to see the slogan go, I'm saddened by possibility of mass departure from radical movements into an acceptance of moderate static.
Fritz Tucker is a native Brooklynite, writer, activist, theorist and researcher of people's movements the world over, from the US to Nepal. He blogs at fritztucker.blogspot.com
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