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No Second Act

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Occupy Philly.jpgThey say there are no second acts in American lives and that seems especially true of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its local manifestation.

In fact, the local protest seems even more askew, at least in its symbolism.  Occupy Wall Street actually occupied Wall Street, the locus of America's financial system. That made sense.

Occupy Philadelphia set up its tent city at City Hall, the center of local government.  Local government, if anything, is the victim of an economy that tanked.

While the plutocrats on Wall Street partied, the recession caused the city to cut back on services, increase taxes on local residents and put pressure on our local social services apparatus. In short, the folks in City Hall aren't among the one percent who are the villains; they are tasked with helping the 99 percent who are victims.

(And now, our cash-strapped local government is facing bills in excess of $1 million in overtime and cleanup because of the Occupy Philly tent city.)

Once the tents are gone and the protesters go home, the legitimate question is: What next?

The answer, I fear, is nothing much.  The interesting thing about the Occupy movement is that it is not political, not in any conventional sense of the word.  It wasn't a genuine movement; it was more like a purposeful flash mob. It existed to demonstrate a point -

and it succeeded. But once the point was made, what then? They just hung around and kept making the same point.

People like to compare the Occupy movement with the Tea Party, but I don't see any parallel, other than the anger. Say what you will about the Tea Party people, they are part of a political movement. They exist not simply to make a point but to make a difference. They organized to defeat their enemies and elect their friends. Their voice magnified at the ballot box in (mostly) Republican primaries, they have become a force to be reckoned with.

Can the Occupy movement do the same? Can they become an effective political force? I doubt they have the inclination. Or, if they do, it is likely to be dissipated during the eight-hour-long meeting they will hold to reach consensus on what next. A statement will be issued. Dissenters will issue another statement. And those dissenting the dissent will issue a third.

It reminds me of the Left in the 60's - contentious, garrulous, and amoeba-like in their ability to divide into new cells. When I was at Temple in the late 60's, there came a point when we had four different Marxist-Leninist groups on campus, later contested by two Maoist factions. They totaled about 40 people. By the time they got done, they could have held meetings in a phone booth. (They had phone booths in those days.)

There was a lot of navel gazing then. There is a lot today in the Occupy movement.

I don't think the folks involved, noble though they may be, have the skill set of great political operatives: single-mindedness, an impulse for action, a good sense of strategy and tactics and relentlessness in pursuit of their goals. (See: Adams, John; King, Martin Luther and Lenin, Vladimir)

Nor should we expect them to have these traits. Most of them are, after all, new to the world of protest. It's not surprising they confuse the volume of media coverage with success. How can they know they are only the flavor of the moment, easily displaced by others? (Black Friday! Retail Sales on the Rebound! Protests in Egypt!) Used up and spit out by the media machine.

And why not? Theirs is a story without real conflict. Without identifiable heroes or villains. No drama. No narrative arc. Even the Right couldn't get their base riled over the Occupy protests, though not through lack of trying. It was like trying to grab hold of squid.

The Occupy folks are not the first to measure success by minutes of media exposure.

From birth, they have been so immersed in media, their mere presence on TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. validates them. Descartes dictum: Cogito, ergo sum. 'I think, therefore I am' has been displaced by Visus sum, ergo sum. 'I have been seen, therefore I am.'

There's no denying that there is power in being seen. But then there is real power. The power to change the course of history, to influence a nation, to change minds. That power is elusive and hard to obtain. So very hard.

A defining moment of my youth was the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. I was 14 at the time, but sat mesmerized in front of the TV to see the 250,000 gather, manifesting their desire for civil rights. I remember listening to the speech of Martin Luther King that day - and it was a revelation. He was eloquent, inspiring, Shakespearean. His call to racial justice was a trumpet blast. If you have not seen it, click here.

But, King was not born that day, nor did he disappear into the mists after the march was over. He and so many of those who marched had fought for civil rights for more than a decade - in the South, in the face of terrible violence, hatred and oppression.

And when the march was over, they did not go away. They continued their fight - on the ground, in the wards, at the voting booths - until they achieved their goals. Like the Tea Party people, they were a genuine political movement.

They would never have watched coverage of their gathering and considered it a success. It was a step - and only a step - in the long march to equality.

The world has changed since then. Our media-saturated present is so different than the primitive black-and-white past, but that does not change the fundamentals of the equation.

People who hold power never give it up without resistance, sometimes without violent resistance. Sincerity - and a willingness to camp out in REI tents - won't do it.

-- Tom Ferrick

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