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  • Audrey Cleo

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    The Occupy Wall Street protests have been going on for a month or so now, growing from a relatively small band of protestors in NYC’s Zuccotti Park into demonstrations worldwide. While the list of demands, or lack thereof, remains varied and somewhat vague, a common theme has emerged: anger and frustration born out of the global financial crisis and a growing resentment towards income inequality. Ignoring buzzy phrases like “class warfare,” at the heart of Occupy Wall Street movement it seems is a battle of haves versus have-nots which, in these tough economic times, translates into rich versus poor. Collectively, the demonstrations are about worries over jobs, debt, wages; student loans, mortgages, rent to be more specific. It’s about having food, shelter and education and enough money to afford all of them comfortably and not having these privileges available to a wealthy few.

    But is this message getting through or is it getting lost in the beat of a bongo drum?

    My freshman year at Berkeley, inspired by my school’s legacy of social activism, my friend and I woke up early one Saturday morning to join other Cal students at the downtown Berkeley BART station. Armed with hand-painted cardboard signs, we rode into San Francisco and convened with several hundred others in Justin Herman Plaza to protest the Iraq War. And by the time an activist stepped up to the podium to speak out against circumcision (!!), my disillusionment with protesting – at least for that day – reached its height. Confused and a little tired (hey, 8 AM is early for a college kid), I hopped back on the BART, stopped at Blondie’s for a slice, and back to my dorm on-campus.

    It wasn’t the actual protest against war that left me confused and slightly jaded; it’s that a protest with a seemingly cohesive message (“anti-war”) devolved into something… else. I didn’t get the note that at some point during the third hour of our gathering, after the Joni Mitchell lookalike finished her acoustic guitar solo, we would move from being against war to being against circumcision. It was a protest against war and against, well, everything else. I felt tricked because I hadn’t taken any time out to even think about how I felt about circumcision! And why was I asking myself this anyway? It was like being in that class in high school with the teacher you grow to resent because she always manages to give out pop quizzes at the most inopportune times, like, I don’t know, during a war protest. I realize those two timelines don’t exactly match up but you get the point. Also, unlike at OWS, there were no teach-ins with Joseph Stiglitz or props from Lupe Fiasco and Kanye; just Phoney Mitchell and Anti-Circumcision Man and a bunch of war protestors with painted signs.

    I note this experience not because I don’t believe in the power of protests. Quite the opposite; I do. Whether it’s Tea Party members rallying together or frustrated masses setting up house at Wall Street’s doorstep, protesting is as American as apple pie. And not even, like, regular apple pie: McDonald’s apple pie. Activism has been a means to an end throughout American history. Our country would not have even been founded had it not been for our forefathers stirring things up. The same can be said for women’s right to vote, civil rights, free speech and gay rights. Protests are part of the process of change; some would say even a fundamental and necessary part. But part of protesting also means having a clear message that does not get co-opted into Somethingelseville and into a protest against everything; because if it’s a protest against everything, it’s a protest against nothing.

    Former President Bill Clinton recently put his thoughts on Occupy Wall Street simply: “The Occupy Wall Street crowd basically is saying, ‘I’m unemployed and the people that caused this have their jobs again and their bonuses again and their incomes are high again. There’s something wrong with this country. This is not working for me.'” And maybe that is the message right there. I haven’t attended an Occupy Wall Street protest, but I can only wonder what will happen after the protestors have stopped beating their bongo drums.

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