Occupy Wall Street: From Marginalized and Criminalized to Mainstream Arts at The One Year Anniversary
Guest Post by Demetra M. Pappas JD, MSc, PhD
One year ago, New Yorkers considered the word “occupy” as relating to real estate or landlord-tenant law. The word “occupant” or “occupier” was generally a reference for use by police (especially in vehicular searches), lawyers and jurists in the criminal justice system, and (in civil proceedings) insurance claims and law. That was all before Occupy Wall Street, a protest movement of the “99%” (regular people) as against the 1% (wealthy CEOs, CFOs, members of the banking and stock markets, the ultra-rich).
On September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street introduced a new phrase to the vocabulary, a new concept to most Americans, who have not seen the level of protest in the past year since the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era, which predates the birth of most college (and many graduate) students. The protests against social and economic inequality resulted in an encampment in the financial district’s Zuccotti Park.
On September 18, 2012, Andrew Ross Sorkin published a front-page article in the “Business Day” section of The New York Times, entitled “Occupy Wall Street: A Frenzy that Fizzled.” Sorkin opened his piece saying that “[Occupy Wall Street] will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.” Sorkin contended that “now, 12 months later, it can and should be said that Occupy Wall Street was – perhaps this is going to sound indelicate – a fad.” With all due respect to Sorkin and the Grey Lady, I disagree – Occupy became a national and international movement of civil disobedience, had consequences in the criminal justice system for both occupiers and policing/prosecuting authorities, and became a topic of discussion from classroom to dinner table to water cooler. It was, in short, internationally and locally relevant.
In addition, there have been examples from international art shows to the current Broadway season as to both the visuals and the vocabulary of Occupy moving from the marginalized to the mainstream; this in and of itself is axiomatically a cultural shift.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel in California and in Germany, where I saw some of the more famous Occupy areas in an unplanned way; that is to say that the trips were pre-planned, but that the opportunity to see other Occupy sites was something I requested along the way. This accidental (or opportunistic) cross-cultural study led me to write a visual sociology blog, entitled, “The Overlapping Geographies of Occupy and the Arts,” appeared earlier this month in Social Shutter post http://socialshutter.blogspot.com/2012/09/occupy-collaborates-with-arts.html. What I noticed most was that the Oakland (California) Art and Soul Festival of August 4-5, 2012 was replete with music (four stages from indy to blues), stalls for standard festival snacks (and also soul food), had ample accommodations for the disabled and handicapped to have preferential seating arrangements at the stages (and easy ingress and egress given by cheerful security and law enforcement, who showed great community for the disabled, rather requiring visitors to go around to formal exits).
In other words, I saw a well-organized and welcoming event, devoid of any of the deviance (by either occupiers or law enforcement authorities) reported on at length on by Jonathan Mahler in his piece entitled “The World of Anti-Capitalism,” on August 5th, 2012 in The New York Times Magazine. Mahler wrote that “Oakland is the spiritual birthplace of the Occupy movement and maybe the only place where it’s still wreaking havoc” (p. 37). My initial disagreement with this statement is that Occupy Oakland began its protest on October 10, 2011 by creating an encampment at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. This was cleared out amidst violence and 100 arrests on October 25, 2011, with ongoing ensuing chaos for months, including (among other things) strikes, a City Hall break in and takeover. (As an aside, I should say that I clerked for the first Puerto Rican man to take the appellate bench in New York State, and he oft reminisced about one of his proudest moments – helping to organize and participate in a 1960-something sit in at Columbia, a college which he did not attend himself, which would have cast him – in the current day – as a potentially prosecutable miscreant, rather than a bona fide occupier; such a suggestion would have appalled the activist that became the jurist). Oakland certainly has a complicated history, both of economic disenfranchisement and of political activism; however, on the date the article appeared, I can attest that there was no havoc being wrought, that the people of Oakland were out in a pleasant communion, both citizen and cop.
I read another article barely 48 hours after the Oakland piece, also in The New York Times, by Jack Ewing, “Occupy Frankfurt Camp is Closed as Health Hazard,” (Tuesday, August 7, 2012, p. A6), regarding the clearing of Occupy in Frankfurt, a city I was scheduled to – and did -- visit later the same month. The article pointedly reported that the tent city, at the doorstep of the European Central Bank (which I thought to be fascinating living visual symbolism of marginalization by members of the 99% relating to the 1%) was closed only after months of tolerance and court litigation by protesters, who “argued with police, beat drums and played loud rap music, but there appeared to be no physical confrontation” (Id.). Ewing’s article compared Frankfurt’s camp – and its clearing for reasons of hygiene and health hazard – favorably with the clearing earlier in the year in New York (and let us not even discuss the Oakland Occupy clearing efforts, notoriously mishandled). During my visit to Frankfurt, I pointedly asked to see the Occupy site. What one local businessman told me was that Occupy Frankfurt had rules, which it well-enforced, with Occupy equivalents of Neighborhood Watch. Again, the German businessman – who had not read the NYT piece, articulated that the central reason for the clear out was hygienic, with a secondary reason that some non-political miscreants had gravitated to the site to engage in unlawful drug use and similar conduct – something that the occupiers themselves found unacceptable. As something of an irony, on the day we drove past, en route to another city, there were still some Occupy tents and citizenry, seemingly peaceably assembled. Perhaps even more instructive was that this was in the midst of Frankfurt’s Museum Embankment Festival (which I likened in another piece to New York’s Museum Mile having been placed on the banks of the East River, with music stations, culinary eateries and artisanal stalls set up a mile on either side of the river, with mansion and museum gardens also opened to the pubic for the purpose), though some distance from the embankment arts and museums sites.
Even more embracing of the Occupy movement and its occupiers was the German city of Kassel, which hosts the experimental arts festival dOCUMENTA from June through September every fifth year (and has done so since 1955). It was in this location that Occupy and art merged, where Occupy saw the marginalized about the mainstream. A docent told me that one of the primary questions sought to be presented in dOCUMENTA (perhaps the biggest art festival in the world) is whether something is art. In Friedrichsplatz, the main square, where the infamous “hole in the ground” (not visible as anything other than a small circle within the concrete of the square) is located, there were Occupy tents. In addition, there was a series of some 20 small (knee high, two five year old child-wide), perfectly constructed tents with single words or phrases on them (my particular favorite, perhaps as a former criminal lawyer, was “abuse of power"). Virgilio Pelayo, Jr., of dOCUMENTA 13, confirmed that the miniature Occupy Art tents were created by the Occupy Camp. A docent in Kassel, Lutz Kirchner, a docent who is also an artisan, kindly translated information for me, to the effect that additional artistic tents were constructed as “thanks to the curator and as a friendly art.” The same document cites Dr. Alexander Beck as noting that the Occupy art was meant to be part of a theme of destruction and reconstruction. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Artistic Director and Curator of dOCUMENTA 13 was especially welcoming of Occupy art – indeed, the Rome/Kassel/New York based artist announced herself as inviting “the participants of the movement to take care of the place and to take responsibility for the space that they have the right to occupy, and to respect the people of the city of Kassel and the visitors of the documentation, in the secular spirit of the rise and becoming” (Press Release as translated by Lutz Kirchner, September 8, 2012).
As for New York, is there cultural recall on the occasion of the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street? Yes, there were protests, yes, there were arrests. However, there was also artistic rendition of occupy in New York in the Broadway rendition of cheerleader movie Bring It On; in the revised and reconstructed Broadway show, an “evil” and manipulative wealthy suburban cheerleader named “Eva” (played with delicious delinquency by Elle McLemore) triumphantly (and deliberately politically incorrectly) cries out “I am the 1 %!” As for the audience, it collapsed with laughter – at the 1%, not as part of it, and plot development clearly constructed Eva as the malefactor.
Occupy Wall Street has become indelibly inked into the mainstream presence of arts and performance institutions – no disrespect to Andrew Ross Sorkin, but this reflects format, not fizzle.
Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, teaches in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, New York, where she was named the SGA Faculty Member of the Year for 2011/2012. She writes about criminal law, criminal justice, visual sociology, culinary culture, theater and the arts and historical matters, among other things. Her first book, “Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America: The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate,” (Greenwood Press) came out in September 2012. She can be reached at DemetraPappas@yahoo.com and followed on Twitter @DemetraPappas.