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November 17, 2011  | by: Kerri O'Malley

The first buzzword to emerge from the Occupy Wall Street movement was the obvious: “occupy.”  Coined by movements all across the country, the word is everywhere today, used both in support of the protest and for convenient sarcasm.  But as the movement’s two-month anniversary is celebrated today in the wake of the forceful decampment of various chapters of the protest, another word is on the rise in the discussion of Occupy Wall Street: “expression.”

“Freedom of expression” is a necessary side issue tied into any protest, which must first fight and win the battle for the right to protest before it can move on to fighting for its specific cause.  But as the fight for the right to express discontent finds itself increasingly at the center of the OWS protests, the movement is putting itself more at risk for irrelevance and stagnation than ever before.

As the NYPD and other police departments tore through camps this week, only to allow protesters back to the scenes soon after, the most dangerous thing they may have done is cement the change in conversation.  NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in a City Hall news conference that occurred hours after police raided Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, defended the police action by saying:

“New York City is the city where you can come and express yourself.  What was happening in Zuccotti Park was not that.  It was — it had developed into a situation which was prohibiting a lot of people from expressing their views.”

Bloomberg also accused the protesters of “making [the park] unavailable to anyone else.”

NYPD Clears Zuccotti Park on Tuesday

Getting into the tangled intricacies of Bloomberg’s utterly ridiculous and ultimately ineffective argument is like pulling the thread on the central, most confusing issue of free speech: where does one person’s free speech end and another’s begin?  This is an unanswerable issue that, frankly, doesn’t seem relevant to OWS at all.  To be sidetracked into this discussion, even to feel overly compelled to fight for the protesters’ freedom of expression, is to be effectively deflected by Bloomberg’s remarks away from the true consequences of his actions, which was to strike a massive, albeit temporary, blow to the heart of the OWS movement; to tear Wall Street away from Occupy Wall Street in a perhaps too well-aimed hit.

The Many Messages of OWS

Occupy Wall Street’s number one enemy throughout its protestations hasn’t been the mayor or the NYPD.  Instead, it’s been the protest’s perceived lack of focus, a very real issue for a campaign that has become increasingly caught up in its right to “express” without being able to clearly state what it’s expressing.  Most of OWS’s original goals or central ideas, formed shakily amongst a mass of people who converged for subtly different reasons, have recently fallen to the wayside as protesters try to maintain control of their respective parks and get lost in the fight for their right to be there, turning attention away from the reason they are there to begin with.  For the protesters to leave Wall Street makes the cause even less definable — the core has been at least partially removed.

Ultimately, the movement is less threatened by the physical removal of protesters that occurred throughout the nation this week than by the renewed emphasis that must now be placed on their right to occupy, instead of what their occupation means.  The surge of support that protesters are now likely to experience in the wake of these attacks on free speech will likely be directed solely towards the protesters’ right to protest, not necessarily to the Occupy Wall Street cause itself.

In a moment of clarity usually unknown to rockstars, when asked to respond to the OWS eviction, Fitz and the Tantrums frontman Michael Fitzpatrick spoke a word of worry to Rolling Stone about the state of OWS.  “The message really is about the excesses of unregulated corporate and financial market greed,” said Fitzpatrick.  “And I just wonder now if the actual Occupy Wall Street movement itself is overshadowing the message.”

If Jay-Z has anything to say about it, you can bet the movement will kill the message.  Last week, just before the busts, Jay-Z announced his Rocawear “Occupy All Streets” shirts to an overwhelming tide of criticism when it became clear that the clothing company had no intention of sharing its profits with the movement.  Though Hov’s flagrant urge to capitalize on the protest DIRECTLY opposes the movement’s ideals and completely undermines OWS, Rocawear found an easy loop-hole to jump through when it threw out our new favorite buzzword.

Russell Simmons with Jay Z in His "Occupy All Streets" Shirt

In defense of the shirts, a Rocawear rep told Business Insider:

“Rocawear strongly encourages all forms of constructive expression, whether it be artistic, political or social. ‘Occupy All Streets’ is our way of reminding people that there is change to be made everywhere, not just on Wall Street.”

I’m glad Jay & Co. approve of everybody expressing themselves.  I’m sure they encourage their children to finger-paint often.  But profiting from a piece of merchandise that purposefully uses a movement against itself, then even more purposefully failing to draw attention to the central issues of the protests — losing the movement in generalities and encouraged “expression” — is downright offensive and belittling.  Encouraging people to express themselves has never seemed more vile and despicable, especially considering how hard it has been for OWS to be taken seriously.  These shirts make the threat that OWS will be consumed by our culture, accepted, integrated, and rendered utterly harmless, startlingly real and immediate.

It’s now up to the protesters to re-shed light on their central issues and draw attention and support away from their right to sit in a park, back to the reasons why they’re there.  This, I think, will be far more difficult than it at first appears, partly because of the extreme tourism OWS has drawn and partly because many of its members are there for emotional reasons rather than a unified cause; many truly are there to express themselves, to use their right to free speech just to use it.  Issues are flying around, but when it comes down to it, the only really cohesive message of the protesters, the main cause, is to show the government and corporations that we’re frustrated, to put faces to the frustration.  To open our windows and shout in unison, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore!”

I don’t mean to negate the importance of expressed frustration as a valid protest strategy or an important part of our political process.  It’s necessary for healthy politics and beautiful in its simplicity as far as protests go.  But it’s important to remember that there is a difference between our individual right to freedom of expression and the ability to solidify as a group focused on a cause that will affect widespread change.  Drum circles are great (so is group therapy), but you might as well be beating a dead horse if there’s no plan behind the passion.

A feeling of unrest and expressed frustration are important catalysts for change, and OWS has certainly fueled that fire.  In many ways, these people in the streets express something we all feel, but we’re counting on them to sustain where we’re unable — to feel this frustration 24/7 as we try to ignore it, fearing helplessness, just as much.  But without ideas, solutions, and goals, the momentum of emotion is bound only to fizzle.  Or worse, be consumed by the ideas and goals of others outside the movement, positioned as political pawns or t-shirt logos.

As OWS loses itself in the fight for the right to express our collective emotions, let’s all remember to concentrate on the source of that frustration, on possible solutions and futures that could relieve our present anguish and anger.  We must remember our even more important right not only to express our thoughts, but to actively compose them; to share not only anger, but ideas.

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