May Day was supposed to have been a big moment for the Occupy Wall Street movement. As millions of angry Europeans took to the streets, the Occupiers urged Canadians and Americans to turn out too. They called for a general strike of students and workers, as well as a total shopping ban. It was supposed to be "A Day Without the 99 Per Cent."
Did you notice? Me neither. In Toronto, where the action kicked off at Nathan Phillips Square, the CBC reported that the police outnumbered the crowd. At the Ontario Legislature, a few protesters dug an illicit garden and planted peas. Across Canada, the streets were remarkably quiet – except for Montreal, where students protesting against tuition hikes, some with balaclavas and bricks, were wreaking their usual havoc.
There were other nasty moments. In San Francisco, black-clad activists trashed the Mission District, smashing windows with crowbars, spattering storefronts with eggs and paint, and spray-painting anarchy symbols on parked cars. Their targets were not greedy banks and big corporations, but small shops, restaurants and a housing project. "This just seems like they're frustrated with their impotency at this point," Jeremy Tooker, owner of Fourbarrel Coffee, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Some protesters invaded a building belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and refused to leave. "We are not the 1 per cent. I don't get it," said a spokesman for the archdiocese. "I think it's an indication of how confused the Occupy movement has become in terms of its goals and its focus."
The Occupy movement is officially committed to nonviolence. The protesters in San Francisco were quick to condemn the destruction, insisting that the vandals were a tiny splinter group who had nothing to do with them. But black-clad thugs, usually known as the Black Bloc, have an inconvenient way of turning up at Occupy events and smashing things.
The Occupy protesters are deeply divided about the Black Bloc. Some (probably the majority) think they are doing the movement enormous harm. Others regard them as a useful way to "diversify" the movement's tactics. Quebec's biggest student protest group, CLASSE, has refused to condemn them. In their view, the anarchists in black are simply practising a more assertive form of self-expression. The real violence, they say, is being inflicted by the state.
Among the movement's fatal flaws is its inability and unwillingness to police the thugs, kooks, crackpots and self-styled anarchists who are attracted to it. This May Day, police in Cleveland arrested five scruffy men in their early 20s, several of whom were active in the local Occupy movement, for allegedly trying to blow up a bridge. Police said they wanted to strike a blow against the system by detonating something, but fortunately, were using phony explosives obtained from an FBI informant. The movement's openness to all comers is a problem. The Cleveland Five may prove to be the first would-be bombers spawned by the movement, but they also may not be the last.
There's no chance that the Occupiers can regain the initial sympathy they had among the mainstream public. The public doesn't like disorder, and it really doesn't like violence. Progressive politicians who once expressed their warm support are staying far away. The media's infatuation has cooled. And former supporters are fed up with the Occupiers' comical decision-making methods and their militant refusal to articulate a set of goals or a strategic vision. As one frustrated person commented on The New York Times website, "I am someone who is actually sympathetic and has worked on behalf of some of the many, many ideas that were thrown out there. But the confusion and intentional lack of focus made me flee from any association with these people. WHAT DO THEY WANT? No capitalism? No banks? Everyone to make the exact same amount of money? What, exactly????!!!"
Although there may be plenty wrong with capitalism, it's painfully apparent that the Occupiers don't have anything to offer. Dressing up as a giant squid in front of Goldman Sachs (famously described as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity") can be fun. But it won't exactly point the way to a fairer and more enlightened world.
Yet one group remains infatuated with the Occupiers. Among the academic crowd, they are hot, hot, hot. Social scientists at universities across North America have leaped at the chance to study them (and also to participate). They are gathering data, conducting surveys, interviewing activists and holding conferences on how the Occupy movement is transforming society as we know it. A thousand academic papers and PhD theses are no doubt in the works. But the academics had better hurry up – before it melts away.