On Activism and Cynicism: An Hour Waiting for Russell Brand in Zuccotti Park

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I walked down to Zuccotti Park yesterday afternoon. I haven’t been there since Occupy Wall Street was forcibly removed from the park in November 2011. And, look, I’ll admit it — I never went to the park during Occupy, either. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with activism — or, perhaps more accurately, with activists. Insofar as Occupy had defined goals (and one of the smartest and most interesting things about the movement was its inclusivity), I supported them — anyone who reads Flavorwire regularly will be unsurprised to know that we often lean left of center. But when it comes to direct action or marches or such things, I have always had a problem, and that problem has a name: drum circles.

This is, I’ve always been aware, a pretty superficial judgment. To some extent, I’d say in my own defense, this is a matter of pragmatism; you just know that at every protest, there are going to be crust punks with dreadlocks forming a drum circle, and you just know that they’re the people the media is going to focus on, so as to better discredit the whole thing as a haven for malcontents and reprobates. There’ve been times when I’ve wanted to say, look, if you really want to help, just fuck off. Leave. Let the rest of us have a protest without you. Maybe everyone else will take it that little bit more seriously.

But also, if I’m honest, there’s an element of instinctual prejudice here. It’s something that I think a great majority of the public shares — we’re brought up with a pretty fixed idea of what politicians look like. We don’t trust those politicians, of course, but we’re still conditioned to see our leaders as certain types of people: adults, mostly men, mostly white, mostly in suits. It’s hard to overcome that prejudice, when you start to really think about it; it’s hard to imagine a 25-year-old President, no?

More than that, though, I think what our politicians lack these days is the zeal of idealism. It’s bred out of them by decades of campaigning and compromise and baby-kissing and euphemizing and toeing the party line. We take it as an accepted truth that politics is for the cynical and the self-interested. We see it as inevitable that that realpolitik always triumphs over idealism. We accept that power is inevitably self-serving. We see these things as the parameters of politics. And it’s this, I think, that people find instinctively troubling about activists: they’re not like that. They come from a completely different place from career politicians.

There’s a reason that people find idealism confronting, to some extent: political activists are remarkably like religious activists, in that they’re committed completely and faithfully to one idea, an idea to which their dedication is unshakable. There’s nothing more disconcerting than someone who’s 100% convinced that they know The Answer. It’s something in their eyes, the way they stare straight at you and seem to will you into sharing their ideas. There’s a whiff of fanaticism about it. Even if you agree with them, it’s discomfiting. No one believes that hard any more, right?

But then, what’s better? People 100% convinced that no one can ever know The Answer? That this is the best of all possible worlds, that we should continue as is and be grateful we have it as good as we do? Clearly, global capitalism has its flaws, and the laissez-faire rhetoric of the right is disingenuous and ultimately self-serving. There’s a difference between wanting no government regulation and wanting the government regulation that suits you.

So, yes, I walk down to Zuccotti Park. I arrive half an hour early and a couple of years too late; the park’s benches are largely occupied by office types eating belated lunches from Subway. The Occupy presence is limited to perhaps ten people, clearly all veterans of the movement. A kindly old lady hands out flyers headlined “REVOLUTION.” A gay kid in high heels and devil horns dances to fundamentally uninteresting club music. A couple of people with dreads smoke a joint. And so on.

Russell Brand is nowhere to be seen. I sit and people-watch. The clock ticks over to 3pm, the time of Brand’s scheduled appearance. A crowd has started to gather. A bunch of schoolgirls stare in fascination at the dancer’s fluid movements, and then run away shrieking when he waggles his ass at them. A few passing suits stop to look for a bit, then continue back to their cubicles. A woman gives out posters of Andy Kaufman, inviting people to write on them what Andy would have thought of the state of the world in 2014. An old stoner dude brandishes a handwritten placard that read, “SHIT IS STILL FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT.”

I sit, and wait, and think. Is this the best we can do? A few crust punks and two kids smoking a joint? Is this going to change the world? I don’t disagree with the adage that the personal is political, but equally, I’ve never really agreed with the implication that radicalism equals radical self-expression. It comes back to drum circles, really. Bongo solos aren’t gonna fix the structural defects of global capitalism.

Three-thirty pm. Still no Russell. People are taking the delay as an opportunity to speak, to announce rallies and promote hashtags. A scruffy-looking chap gets up to speak about a civil disobedience event happening in Washington Square park later in the evening — apparently, it’s to involve smoking joints and free Capoeira lessons. The idea, apparently, is to get stoned, “challenge stereotypes of marijuana users,” and also train an army of activists for civil disobedience. An army of stoners. I find myself giggling at the idea, and get disapproving looks from a couple of people around me. I feel somewhat chastened, I guess. Still, if I never hear another stoner extolling the virtues of weed again, it’ll be too soon.

But then, what use is my cynicism? What am I doing? We’re brought up to believe that the way toward change is through our votes, through engagement with our political system. It’s all bullshit, of course — the real source of power is economic, not political, and we don’t get to vote for the oligarchs who influence our politicians far more than our votes ever will. This isn’t exactly an earth-shattering observation, of course, and just like you, probably, I’ve been thinking about it for years. But what’s the alternative? That’s the hard bit, no?

As I think about this, a skinny, murine man in a sleeveless top begins speaking. He explains that he’s recently returned from Ferguson, where — as he reminds us — nothing has changed. “The media have left,” he says, and it’s now that it’s most important that people continue to protest, to demand change and action and maintain pressure on the administration in Missouri to somehow stop deaths like Mike Brown’s happening again, and again, and again. I had drinks the other night with a writer friend who was desperate to go and report on Ferguson, but couldn’t get her employer to fund her trip/give her the time to go. This guy just got up and went.

And then the old joint-smoking bro introduces an unassuming, mid-20s white girl. “I don’t believe in celebrities,” he proclaims, “but I believe in heroes.” The girl is Cecily McMillan, of whom you may well have heard — she was arrested at an Occupy event in 2011, suffered injuries and a seizure from her handling by police officers, and then as a final insult, got sentenced to 90 days in Rikers for “assaulting a police officer.” Even by the not-especially-proud standards of the US justice system, it was a pretty egregious miscarriage of justice. McMillan would be forgiven for wanting nothing more to do with activism, given how brutally it was demonstrated to her that she can be thrown in prison for nothing.

But she’s not. She’s braver than I am. She’s here, again, in Zuccotti Park, speaking about what her ordeal says about America, reading a speech off her iPhone. “The only thing remarkable about what happened to me,” she says, “is the color of my skin.” She’s right, of course — every day in America, people of color suffer ordeals like hers, or worse. Or they’re just killed. Trayvon Martin. Mike Brown. John Crawford. And many, many more. She speaks about how she plans on returning to Rikers on the first and third Saturday of every month to rally for an end to solitary confinement and mistreatment of female prisoners.

As she’s speaking, she stares at me, and it’s there — that gleam of idealism in her eyes, the way she stares straight at me. Cecily McMillan could be a politician, should be a politician. She’s the sort of speaker who could tell you that the sky was bright red and just for a moment, you’d believe her. And it’s frightening, and it’s inspiring, and that’s frightening. It’s easier just to be cynical, right? To accept that things are just this way, than to envisage another way and put your personal safety on the line to demand that your voice be heard. It’s easier to believe there’s no other way than accept that there is one, if only people would reach out and take it.

Cecily McMillan hasn’t found The Answer, of course, but perhaps she’s found something more important: that if this is the best of all possible worlds, it’s that way only because people have demanded that be the case. If it wasn’t for the civil rights protesters of the 1960s, we’d live in a country even more racially divided and dedicated to the disenfranchisement of people of color than it already is. If it wasn’t for the suffragettes, women would still be precluded from voting. If it wasn’t for the work of feminist activists, anti-abortion activists around the country would have been far more successful in closing down clinics than they have been.

These are, on balance, modest gains, if you think about them in comparison to the extent to which women and people of color are still treated horribly in America. But they’re gains nonetheless. We have to start somewhere. If Occupy achieved anything, it reminded people that activism is still a viable method of effecting change: the Park isn’t occupied any more, but here we are still talking about it. Occupy made a difference. Drum circles and all.

Russell Brand turned up just before 4pm. He spoke for a couple of minutes. It was, y’know, alright.