Occupy America

A couple weeks ago approximately a dozen Native Hawaiians lined up in Wailuku along High Street in Wailuku. Their backs to the Kalana O Maui building, they faced the road holding signs saying “Respect the Kupuna” and calling on residents to oppose Mayor Alan Arakawa’s efforts to return Halloween festivities to Lahaina Town. They claimed that Arakawa overstepped his authority in bringing the Halloween festivities back to Lahaina, as well as the fact that the county shouldn’t be approving such an event because it isn’t Hawaiian. Everyone was quiet and polite, no one became violent, though they apparently did discuss their grievances with county officials.

A month earlier, University of Hawaii students Jamie and Tess Meier (the latter grew up in Kihei) were arrested in Waikiki while advocating “gender equity”–specifically, the right of both sexes to go topless in public. Both were stripped to the waist during their protest, though Honolulu Police said they were busting them because they failed to secure a city permit (the Prosecuting Attorney’s office dismissed the matter on Sept. 30 after the American Civil Liberties Union stepped forward to represent the couple).

I mention these two acts of civil disobedience because of their similarities. Though the two protests involve relatively small groups of people, they both pivot on easily definable and explainable grievances. Each group found what they perceived as a single injustice (government support for a non-Hawaiian event/government prohibition against public nudity) and then took action in exactly the same way by standing in public and holding up signs expressing outrage (further, similar protests are planned for Oct. 7 in front of the State Office Building to oppose the war in Afghanistan, and later on Oct. 16 at Monsanto’s Kihei operation to oppose the further development of genetically modified foods).

The result is that both protests received media attention (though the Meiers’ activism got a lot more, um, exposure, for obvious reasons). I thought about all this because of the so-called “Occupy Wall Street” protests currently going on in New York City. There, hundreds of people have been camped out in Lower Manhattan to virtually no mainstream media attention. In fact, it wasn’t until dozens of protesters were mass-arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge last week that the protests rose to the level of “story” at the New York Times/NBC Nightly News level.

Part of the reason, the protesters are saying, is that they’re denouncing corporate injustice in front of reporters who work for newspapers, magazines and television networks owned by billion-dollar multi-national corporations. But there is more truth in the media argument that the protesters lack leadership, organization and even a coherent message.

Here’s the thing: news stories are short things, really. They basically have a single message that can be summed up in a few words (the headline). A few hundred people of all walks of life refusing to leave Wall Street while holding up signs denouncing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taxpayer-funded bailout of banks, corporate crime and even the Supreme Court ruling that a corporation is legally a “person” doesn’t translate into a single story with a single headline.

See, protests only really work when they’re about one thing: denouncing a dictator, for instance. This can lead to revolution (Egypt), civil war (Libya), massacres (Syria) or just continuing malaise (pretty much the rest of the middle east). What the Wall Street crowd seems so upset about aren’t really specific policies or even individuals, but the era we live in–which would be a very difficult, time-consuming story to write.

This is actually kind of scary when you think about it. What if all their demands for justice and an end to greed are actually just a backlash against the ultimate failure of capitalism? Communism collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s because it couldn’t ultimately provide a rising standard of living for the people living under it–what if the same thing is happening here, just at a much slower rate?

Economists tell us that since the Great Depression, each succeeding economic recovery has been shallower and shorter than the previous one. Thus, it’s not surprising that the phrase “worst recession since the Great Depression,” which is often used today to describe the global economic catastrophe that occurred in 2008, is hardly a new phrase. In fact, I found it recently in Mansel Blackford’s Fragile Paradise: The Impact of Tourism on Maui, 1959-2000.

“Even as many of Maui’s residents embraced tourism, some questioned its role in economic development,” Blackford wrote. “An economic recession that hurt much of the world in the early 1980s, the worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, spurred questioning.”

If this is in fact what’s happening, then protests like the one in Wall Street will continue elsewhere, and even grow in intensity. Of course, if I’m wrong, then soon the crowds will disperse, and we can all get back to our regularly scheduled economic catastrophe, which still seems to going full blast.