Art And Occupy Wall Street

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy David Shankbone.

There was something sad, but unsurprising, about the report that during the raid on Occupy Wall Street last night, the New York Police Department threw away the books that had been donated to the OWS library. Fortunately, it’s turned out not to be true. I’m not of the position that we’re going to build a whole new sustainable society at the Occupy encampments — or even that we need a revolution. But I do think that as a spur to volunteerism, and to thinking about how to get services, from legal counsel to literacy education, to people who need them, the encampments have been valuable. And that cities from New York to Oakland could quash the movement best by — as Erik Loomis describes the strategy of the Albany, Georgia government in responding to civil rights protest—killing the protestors with kindness. It’s good that the Zuccotti Park eviction ended up including a plan to box up the library’s books.The image of police throwing away books would have been of a narrative that includes attempts to keep reporters away from the eviction to blunt the coverage of it; the arrests of journalists; and a critically injured veteran of the war in Iraq.

It’s not as if artists have been uninvolved in the Occupy movement previously. Jeff Sharlet and the other folks at Occupy Writers are putting the moral force of art to the wheel, whether they’re writing original work about movement or holding storytelling events at the site of the now-dismantled library. And I don’t think that artists are myopic enough to need a library’s destruction to get angry — the images of last night’s eviction, and the terms of that eviction, seem to have been galvanizing enough. “Reads like progress for the movement, seeing city’s odd press release about ‘free speech’ versus ‘pitching tents.’ Issue coming to fore..?” Community‘s Dan Harmon tweeted, adding, “I’m nervous, too. Nervous that it will fizzle, nervous that it won’t.” Questlove broke the news for a lot of followers that the eviction was starting when he drove by last night. Raising Hope star Martha Plimpton (who is pretty politically engaged on Twitter anyway) is retweeting Rachel Maddow producer Jamil Smith on the language of cleanliness and the encampments.

And so I hope that the eviction, the attempt at a press blackout, and the dismantling, however temporary, of the library inspire some vigorous exercises of free speech,. I hope we don’t just get one-off essays — though many of the pieces up at Occupy Writers are phenomenal. I want to see novels, and television shows, and movies, and plays that take on income inequality, and financial regulation, and debt. You can shut down an encampment, and I imagine lots of cities will. You can ban and arrest individual reporters and throw out individual donated books. But inequity, suppression of protest, and violence tend to be pretty good fodder for art, whether it’s high or low. Artists can help make sure that clearing a park doesn’t mean the end of a movement.