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October 12, 2011

Why the Occupy Wall Street Protests Will Matter

Zombies on stilts eating money. Garbage bags sealed with neckties. Drums and guitars and dramatic mass arrests. The protests known as Occupy Wall Street have been great performance art, but will they change the political equation?

The protesters' Web site boldly claims, "We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our demands," which certainly sounds serious. Most Wall Street pundits have dismissed them based on their insipid interviews and lack of actual demands. At first look, I agreed-after thoroughly surfing their Web site, the only demand I could find was for pizza. There is a section marked "Donate to us," where you can enter your credit card number and click to send them a pie (non-meat options preferred). Aristotle said that hunger is the father of revolution, but for this rebellion, the reverse appeared to be true.

Beyond free pizza, I wondered whether there was a deeper motivation behind all the noise, and so I began to do some research. The London Telegraph thought there wasn't much more to it, calling Occupy Wall Street "little more than a fashion show masquerading as a political movement, a gathering of super-cool yoof who want to show off how hopping mad they are about bankers and war and pollution and stuff..." Not understanding what a "yoof" is, I switched to American sources and continued reading.

The revolution was launched in July by a Canadian leftist magazine called Adbusters, which proclaims a mission of "cutting through the fog of mental pollution with incisive philosophical thrusts and visual mindbombs." Within Adbusters, the idea for the revolution has been attributed to a 69-year-old aesthete named Kalle Lasn, author of the 2006 coffee-table book "Design Anarchy." His first visual mindbomb dropped on New York was a beautiful poster of a ballerina balanced on the famous Wall Street Bull statue, with text above her reading, "What is our one demand?" The poster directed people to a Twitter page, which explained that the one demand would be chosen at a "General Assembly" in New York. After the civil disobedience group Anonymous tweeted the poster, it quickly went viral, resulting in all the yoof hanging out in the park a month or so later.

But a month into the protests, I still could not find out what their one demand was. Mr. Lasn, the father of the revolution, has stated in interviews that he believes a financial transaction tax could be The One, but due to the anarchist nature of the movement he created, he has a limited ability to pull strings. And so I decided to go straight to the heart of it all and sit in on a General Assembly in Zuccotti Park. After listening to quite a few rambling speakers, surrounded by a few dozen bored attendees who were only half-listening, I think it's quite unlikely that Occupy Wall Street will ever settle on the one demand, or for that matter decide much of anything.

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