The ‘Occupy Wall Street movement’ began a little over a month ago, with little fanfare and only a couple of dozen protesters. The movement, such as it was, would have fizzled out and been forgotten were it not for one crucial mistake made by the New York Police Department: they turned violent. The police decided to subdue the protesters with pepper spray and roughed them up a bit. Suddenly, what seemed like nothing more than a get-together of a few extreme left marchers turned into a national movement. Now, apart from the huge protest on Wall Street, mirror movements have sprung up in all the major cities of the US and even in countries as far as Tokyo. The lesson here is simple: the best way to make a protest go away is to ignore it. Give it any attention and the protesters will feed off that. We in Pakistan have been through this before. The violence of May 12, only further bolstered support for the lawyers’ movement. Similarly, the movement against Ayub Khan only picked up steam when he started going after Fatima Jinnah, a sainted figure in Pakistani eyes.
Still, it would be premature to call the ‘Occupy Wall Street movement’ a success. Sheer numbers alone do not constitute achievement. For one, it is hard to know what the demands of this diffuse, leaderless movement are, beyond a general disdain for capitalism. The obvious point of comparison here would be the Boston Tea Party movement, which from the opposite end of the political spectrum, turned its protest into electoral success, moving the Republican Party further to the right, and changing the political debate in the US to one where lowering government spending became the overarching priority. The movement now seeks to turn the focus on the fat cats, who have actually benefited from the recession they caused in the first place. It was the bankers who received the bulk of the bailout money and saw their bonuses rise, while unemployment remained above eight per cent. There is no doubt that protesters have tapped into a rich vein of discontent. What remains to be seen is if that can be channeled into legislative achievement.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2011.