Occupy Wall Street: where are the migrants?

The lack of demographic diversity amongst the protestors and uncertainty about their demands make Occupy Wall Street difficult to take seriously, argues Shilpa Kameswaran from a migrant's perspective

The occupiers of the Occupy Wall Street campaign are picketing, demonstrating, exhibiting civil-disobedience and of course not-occupying Wall Street this afternoon in late- October 2011, marking a fifth week of the protest in New York City. As I walk down Broadway between the World Trade Center path station and the Fulton Street subway station in Manhattan, I wonder if the Zuccotti Park Plaza - home to the Occupy Wall Street protesters – evokes in me memories of the Glastonbury music festival in Somerset, England or if it reminds me more of the cheerful crowds with pitched tents and sleeping bags outside the Wimbledon center court during the grand-slam season. Why is it so difficult on a micro-level for an individual passer-by to take these protesters seriously? And why does the Occupy Wall Street campaign seem a joke on a macro- level to the legislatures and policy makers in Washington D.C?

Public protests like all other social-processes have noticeable overt characteristics and other salient features that give them their defining dimensions and directions. Over the recent past of human evolution, protests world over which have shaken global society, predominantly demonstrate a set of these traits. The red-shirt protests in Bangkok Thailand in 2010, or the Libyan civil war in 2011 and most recently the racial tensions and anti-Roma protests in Bulgaria demanded with seriousness the world’s long-drawn attention as women, men and children of all social classes and economic backgrounds took to the dusty streets risking their lives, at the cost of being raped, killed, arrested and starved to death.

After having spent three months this summer in the Indian sub-continent observing and participating in the civil-disobedience movement against political corruption spear-headed by activist Anna Hazare, where hundreds and of thousands of Indians - rural, urban, illiterate, literate, highly-skilled, unskilled, young, old, upper-caste, backward caste took to the city streets fasting along side Anna Hazare until the ruling congress party agreed on reaching consensus with the public’s demand on the Lokpal Bill - Zuccotti park contrarily seems a far cry from India’s Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi. Walking past the protest in Manhattan’s financial district, my guts are neither wrenched, my blood boils not and I’m not in the least bit persuaded as a member of an international civil-society to join in unison against whatever abstract anti-capitalistic ideas the very ‘hip’ looking Occupy Wall Street protesters are protesting against.

Occupy Wall StreetWhere are the migrants at Occupy Wall Street?
Flickr/BlaiseOne. Creative Commons.

As a first-generation migrant in the United States, the demographics of the Occupy Wall Street Protest intrigues me just enough to notice that there are no conspicuous migrant populations protesting. Where in the so-called masses representing the 99% of America are the East-Asians and South-Asians from Asia? The West-African women from Africa or the Eastern-European men from Europe? This to me is a primary indicator of how heterogeneous the Occupy Wall Street campaign is in a locale as glaringly diverse as New York City in a nation built at the hands of migrant labour. My guess is that, the migrants semi-skilled or highly-skilled are in those concrete towers of capitalism toiling their days out in the most-meritocratic form of world capitalism; American capitalism which unlike in the welfare-states of Europe or  the protectionist states of Asia is fairest in its functioning to its consumers and producers. A thousand youngsters, mainly of Caucasian ethnicity claiming to be political independents, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, and liberals do not quantify or represent civil heterogeneity. 

Also, what good is a protest if it doesn’t transcend the cross-cultural and linguistic rigidities of a global village? Wide-eyed tourists and non-English speaking natives from the Republic of China or from Croatia who come clicking to capture the raging bull off wall street, observe in amusement the few shirt-less youngsters stretching in random yoga poses, some more youngsters in colourful wigs, tattoos and leggings eating organic food and a few more young people sitting glued onto social networking sites on their Macintosh gizmos whipping up considerable social-sentiment through internet activism at Zuccotti Park. Thousands of miles away, earnest middle-class Indians who’ve invested all their salaried earnings in the Bombay stock exchange wonder if their assets are endangered as the protests spreads to new American city each morning, engulfing more left-wing loving, anti-economic growth individuals.

Even after a month of Occupying Wall Street, national politicians and the international press are at loss to understand what exactly these protesters are demanding and whom they seem to be addressing their demands to?

Are the protesters targeting corporate America or just the financial institutions in corporate America?  Is their hatred charged towards the investment banks or towards the finer nuances of the federal financial set-up itself ?  What are their definitions of corporate greed and corporate power? How does that tie into their views on taxation, industrialization and protectionism?

As hundreds of protesters camp over-night in a 33,000-square-foot paved area, public health and sanitation starts threatening to be an issue of concern, pushing the capitalism-hating protesters to use the adjacent (and very capitalistic) McDonald fast-food outlet’s toilets frequently and for nearly 40days now. Added to which an article in nypost.com reports the rise of crime at Zuccotti park, with $2500 of donation money gone stolen last week not to forget other petty thefts of sorts.

Peaceful human protests are a signature mark of an evolved civil society with an evolved consciousness. Yet, it is the truly meaningful protests that move the masses and foster political and social momentum for change. Less-meaningful protests are hard to be perceived seriously and end up causing more destruction to physical and emotional resources of the public. For a migrant living in the city of New York and paying extra taxes than anywhere else in the United States of America, the Occupy Wall Street Protests are costing the New York Police Department and the tax-payer over $3.2 million dollars in providing over-time police assistance. Now, this might make you wonder, what the opportunity cost of such ‘frilly’ protests are considering opportunity-offering New York City in the United States-the largest democracy in the world is neither a present day Libya or an Egypt or a Bulgaria.

About the author

Shilpa Kameswaran is an Indian author and the founding editor of the literary journal Urban Confustions