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Professor Vester Weighs in on Occupy Wall Street

By Abbey Becker

Photo by David Shankbone.

Photo by David Shankbone.

In the fourth article in a series on Occupy Wall Street, Professor Katharina Vester provides an American studies perspective of the Occupy movement.

We are accustomed to seeing political conflict play out as a mediated spectacle in which politicians use the major networks and newspapers to speak to or past one another, and the public is cast as passive spectators instead of actors or participants in political decision-making. The Occupy movements, by turning the public square from a metaphor into a literal space, and using their bodies and their living space to literally enter the political process, have made a claim to a more engaged form of democracy. This recalls the beginnings of democratic practices in the ancient Greek agora, the town square in the hearts of the earliest republics and a site where all eligible citizens met to discuss matters of public interest and came to solutions by voting in a kind of general assembly. (Those who were deemed unfit to be citizens—women, slaves, and immigrants—were excluded from the discussion as well as the vote, which reminds us to be mindful of those who are displaced, not welcomed, or excluded in democratic processes.) Creating space in which people can come together again to discuss the politics that governs them refreshes basic democratic thought and we will all benefit from that, however OWS plays out.

The occupiers are following a tradition of direct action as well, but the melding of their physical presence in the encampments with their use of decentralized social media and instant, global forms of unmediated communication make this a new form of protest that may change the way social movements develop in the future. Their non-hierarchical structure is not unprecedented, but the combination of civil disobedience with a determined refusal to state explicit demands is an innovative move that has, so far, drawn in a wide spectrum of supporters—the lack of stated demands leaves room for the imagination. As far as the occupiers were inspired by the Arab Spring, it also becomes evident that the globe has turned inside out, and that the differentiation between center and margins, first and third world, global North and South, us and them, is becoming more complicated and is acquiring new meanings.