Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Is This Really About Human Rights?


Last night, I was walking around downtown Lancaster with my friend Mike and we decided to stop by the local “Occupy Wall Street” gathering, Occupy Lancaster. When we arrived, we were handed a couple of pamphlets urging the “99%” to rise up and protest the oppression of the “1%.” We then sat in on a meeting where the shivering, sickly protesters discussed recent crackdowns in Harrisburg and New York against other #OWS movements.

The occupiers seemed genuinely concerned about their rights and freedom. One man explained that in Harrisburg, the police ripped up a tent “with a knife! This big!” gesturing his hands about five inches apart, “And there were still people inside!” (Though there was no statement that any of those people were actually harmed in this action). Those gathered around the circle expressed their shock and horror, lifting their hands and wiggling fingers—the #OWS form of silently agreeing with a speaker.

But meanwhile, I had to stop myself from laughing. I’ve spent the last three months reading about female genital cutting, looking at pictures of decaying bodies, and watching videos of people getting run over by armored vehicles. The occupiers’ claims of injustice do not reach anywhere near what others worldwide have suffered.

While #OWS protesters have some serious arguments about the nature of our capitalist society, I’m dubious about how much injustice they really are suffering. Protest movements can only gain traction when there is a real sense of suffering or the government is tricked into overreacting—which explains why Egypt’s government has been overthrown, but America’s has not.

What do you think? Does economic and political inequity constitute a human rights violation, or is this just part of modern society? Are these protests in the same vein as the Arab Spring, or is this just the whining of educated white kids? Can the protesters really complain about police brutality, or are they overreacting? 

3 comments:

Ross said...

Your post is very thought provoking, and I am torn in my answer. On the one hand, I partly agree with what Marx would say when answering whether what these protestors suffered were human rights abuses. Marx would innevitably argue that economic inequality, such as what is occuring in the United States, is most definitely a human rights abuse. He would explain that people are being treated like commodities, and that the bottom 99% are slaves to the top 1%.

A more recent political theorist, Michael Walzer, might also conclude that human rights abuses are occuring in modern US society. He would explain that the money "sphere" is so powerful that it is "dominating" other "spheres" such as education, healthcare, power, etc. And thus, human rights abuses are occuring because money is preventing people from securing their health and education.

While I understand such arguments, I do not completely agree with them. I agree that the economic inequality in the United States is awful, and must be dealt with. I agree with Marx that the bottom 99% are treated as inferiors to the top 1%, and agree with Walzer that the money sphere is dominating other spheres. Despite these truths, disparities in economic standing are not "human rights abuses". Instead, economic inequalities are simply a reflection of the problems when operating in a capitalistic and market dominated society. I believe that the protests on Wall Street are not signs of human rights abuses in America, but rather signals that many Americans are shifting their beliefs in the ideal type of society. Perhaps society will transform to adopt more socialist ways (as Walzer and Marx advocate for).

Andrew B. said...

Completely agree Ross. I think a general shift to a more socialist ideology will be the fate of the US, following in the vein of European nations. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, the OWS protests seem to show that its advent is here. Conservatives won't back down without a fight, however, and we should expect to see many more battles over income inequality in this election year and beyond.

Shane said...

I agree that there is a vast difference between the protests in, for example, north Africa, and those in New York etc.

However, they are very different kinds of protests aimed at very different things. OWS's leaderless system is built around the idea of bringing positive change into a corrupt system of late capitalism in order to better the future of people in the western world. But by token, the regimes in north Africa, the Middle East and central Asia are under the sphere of influence of and deeply impoverished by the post-Reaganist capitalistic systems of the west. So although the stories may be over the top (big knives etc.), the reason for protesting and the system of protesting is very real in my opinion, and very important in terms of the future of social change.