Why Movements Like Occupy Wall St and Black Lives Matter Are Doomed to Failure

Author’s note: This article was written some months ago, but was left in editorial limbo. I’m presenting it with no further changes.

Recently I’ve found myself feeling shocked, saddened, helpless and outraged all in the space of around twenty seconds when I watch the news coming out of the US. Seeing that poor black man in the car shot point blank by a police officer while he was reaching for his wallet, which the officer instructed him to do, I can’t even put into words what I felt then or now. How can this happen? I ask myself. How can these shootings — which often seem one step removed from an execution, be allowed to continue by those in power?

And then I think of 2008, when those who worked on Wall Street decided that they weren’t doing quite well enough, so they decided to gamble people’s money and tank not just their economy, but the entire world’s economy. The Occupy Wall Street movement, well, occupied Wall Street, but nothing much happened there. Life returned to normal very quickly, and now we have a Wall Street that not only wasn’t reformed or regulated (despite it clearly being very necessary), but that is actually increasing in the regularity of their shady conduct and financial gambling.

How is this allowed to happen? How is it possible that the actions of a few, which adversely affect so many, are allowed to continue by those in power? It’s not as though people haven’t been vocal enough. Black Lives Matter has been everywhere on both social and traditional media. The Occupy Wall Street protesters certainly made their presence felt. And yet nothing happened. Not a single law passed, not a single apology given, not a single sign that anything has even slightly improved.

These movements unfortunately don’t work and will never work because while they make plenty of noise and get coverage in the mainstream media, they don’t threaten the social fabric. This means that they will inevitably lose their momentum, fall by the wayside and eventually be forgotten about by everyone. Politicians and those who work for us know this, and just wait for these movements to play themselves out. They know they don’t have to do anything, because soon enough people go back to work, stop writing articles, news coverage ceases, and thus there is no need to hold anyone accountable or pass any new laws. Perhaps if there had been rioting in the streets of New York instead of people peacefully occupying Wall Street, we may have seen some action taken against the bankers. But people standing around, no matter how loud they might be, aren’t really threatening anything or anyone, and don’t inspire the need to take action.

An example of something that did change the social fabric was 9/11. Two planes were flown into the World Trade Centre, and the country went to war not once but twice, for a total number of years which doubled that of World War I and II combined. The government was able to do this because the effect on the American psyche was so great that the social fabric changed in an instant. Movements such as Occupy Wall St and Black Lives Matter don’t change the status quo, because while they are well intentioned, incredibly important and completely justified, they don’t threaten anything. They don’t threaten politicians, who live lives completely removed from their constituents and they certainly don’t threaten the corporate interests that run so much of the country.

While it wasn’t necessarily connected to Black Lives Matter, the retaliation shootings of police officers did begin to get the attention of the powers that be. Unfortunately, the cognitive dissonance of the police and the relatively few times it happened means it may not have any lasting impact. Police chiefs and politicians alike stood up and proclaimed that we can’t have police being shot, yet at the same time failing to address the many cases of manslaughter perpetrated by officers against black citizens. Their cluelessness in acting as the wronged party after perpetrating those wrongs themselves for so long before was jaw dropping. In short, they were jolted enough by the retaliation shootings to be angered and a little worried, but not truly scared. If that were the case, we might have seen a very different response. It will be interesting to see, however, what impact these shootings will have on relations between police and black citizens over the coming months and years. Unfortunately the killing of those police officers will likely have a far greater positive impact for black Americans than the entire Black Lives Matter movement.

If we look at follow up reporting from the riots that have occurred in the US, we see this hypothesis is correct. In the cases of both LA and Baltimore, it took the occurrence of riots to force police command and those in charge to change both their mentality of dealing with the community and their procedures. After all, it’s very easy to ignore what you consider a vocal minority no matter how loud they may be if you live in a bubble of privilege. When you have a full scale riot on your hands that does a billion dollars worth of property damage, however, there is no ignoring it. You have to go through the steps of quelling the riot, determining why it happened and putting measures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

The recent actions of Colin Kaepernick are interesting when brought into this context. Far more peaceful, but it has certainly has people talking and has inflamed emotions on both sides of what shouldn’t even be a debate. And now, some of the Seattle Seahawks have followed suit in sitting during the national anthem as a show of solidarity and agreement. Football is one of the national pastimes, watched and followed by all demographics. What happens when more black players stop standing during the national anthem? What happens when all black players do it? What happens when white players start to follow suit because their need to stand up against injustice is greater than their need to stand for a song that only applies for a certain part of the population? Is it going to be enough to threaten the social fabric, or is it something that will lose its steam like every other peaceful protest?

It would be easy to complain about everything I’ve written here as hate speech and the inciting of violence. I have little doubt that many will say that I’m threatening the social order and fabric, advocating for the killing of police, encouraging people to riot, and citizens taking matters into their own hands. I’m merely pointing out what should be an extremely uncomfortable truth: that the government and those in power don’t actually do anything that its citizens want unless the cost of not doing it is too high for them to bear — and even then it’s a stretch. Consider the fact that 75% of American citizens want in depth background checks on people wanting to buy a gun, yet we haven’t seen a single piece of legislation passed to make this happen, because lobbying from the NRA and weapons manufacturers, which represent a tiny fraction of citizens, keeps it from happening. The fact that citizens have to riot and even kill police officers to have their voices heard shows that those elected to serve the people’s interest don’t care to do so even when a large majority agree on what they want.

A dangerous time for those in power is coming. With the gap between rich and poor widening every year and those not in the 1% continually being shown that they are little less expendable than cattle in an abattoir, people are going to become more and more desperate. It’s not just the fact that they are finding it difficult to make ends meet, it’s the powerlessness that the system engenders. At some point, people’s fears and helplessness will give way to anger at anyone whom they perceive as perpetuating the injustice and holding them down. When they see that their anger at the system and their shouts for change continue to be ignored, they’ll begin to do things that can’t be ignored. This is because the state’s monopoly of force only works when its citizens respect that monopoly, and there are more than enough guns going around that they don’t have to. We’ve already seen police officers (who weren’t necessarily part of the problem), gunned down by those angry at the current situation. If the status quo of police killing innocent black men continues, the retaliation is only going to escalate, to the point where the social fabric becomes threatened. It’s on those in power to ensure change happens before that point is reached.

If they don’t, they have no excuses. They can’t call public actions unacceptable, or stand in front of a microphone and continue to lecture the population about the rule of law, when following the rule of law only seems to get ordinary citizens killed.