THE BEES SWARM Members of Occupy Boston rally in support of Occupy Wall Street
At some point during the online reaction to the New York Police Department's eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park, someone wrote: "Knock over the hive and even more bees will swarm." That is a fair prediction of the effect that forcibly removing occupiers from New York, Oakland, and Portland, Oregon, will have. Occupy — all of the estimated 2600 chapters flowering throughout the world — is not a traditional movement. Rather, it is a spontaneous, self-regulating phenomenon that is becoming adept at improvisation, collectively making things up as it goes along, and inventing a rule book — not playing by one.
It seems fitting that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a lifestyle authoritarian opposed to public smoking, sugar consumption, and rock-and-roll nightclubs, should cite sanitary concerns for evicting Occupy. Bloomberg's vision of urban Nirvana is Disney-esque. The irony is that the ranks of Occupy are filled with vegans and vegetarians who would share many of Bloomberg's concerns. Their ideal is, however, more pluralistic: fully open to diversity and — of course — free speech, no matter how uncomfortable.
Occupy Wall Street faces a concrete challenge in terms of reimagining itself after the cops trashed its camp and a court ruled that protesters can inhabit Zuccotti 24/7, but are forbidden to pitch tents and establish support services.
Occupy Boston is confronted with a more fluid, more passive-aggressive assault from the administration of Mayor Thomas Menino. On the one hand, City Hall has said it has no plans to dislodge Occupy from Dewey Square. But, on the other hand, it is preventing the protesters from bringing in the material needed to winterize the camp. Menino's strategy is to freeze Occupy out.
At the moment, Occupy has more in common with the early days of Europe's Velvet Revolution and the Arab Spring of the Middle East. This should be cautionary. The parallels may be inexact, but the Velvet Revolution failed more often than it succeeded in bringing democracy to the old Soviet empire. And the Arab Spring shows many signs of falling victim to a conservative-inspired counter-revolution.
The obtuseness of traditional politicians in figuring out what Occupy is all about is staggering. Sidestep the style, and it's simple: Occupy is about economic justice in a nation where one percent of the population (with 40 percent of the wealth, according to Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz) has prospered at the expense of the other 99 percent.
Even though he is himself a member of the one percent, Bloomberg should get this. As for Mayor Menino, his more populist instincts are in line with this thinking.
No doubt the disciplined anarchism of the occupiers is a challenge. Whether they know it or not, the Bloombergs and Meninos of America inhabit a world of programs and policy, a world seeking order along the lines laid down by Aristotle. Occupy derives from a similarly ancient but very different tradition, that of Socrates, who taught that the questions one asks are more important than the answers.