Is Occupy Wall Street the new Tea Party? It’s the question dominating headlines as a regular source of debate. From president Obama to Republican Governor Chris Christie, many are saying that “in some ways, they’re not that different.”
Responses from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have been schismatic, to say the least. No surprise there. I imagine it’s sort of like telling Bernie Sanders and Sarah Palin that they share a grandparent. Amid a general atmosphere of dismissal and contempt from both sides, the objections from this election’s Tea Party heavyweights have been by far the loudest and most repugnant. They’ve also been the most distorted and self-righteous.
Their arguments hinge consistently on the idea of “civil disobedience” as a way of painting the protests as a danger to society. Last Thursday, Michelle Bachmann quoted a recent poll alleging that 98% of Occupiers support civil disobedience as a form of protest. She openly bared her contempt when the movement “tremendously counterproductive.” Matt Kibbe, vocal spokesman and CEO of Tea Party funding organization FreedomWorks, used similar logic in a rant published on the Forbes blog: “First, the Occupy protesters pride themselves on provocative resistance to law enforcement and in some cases violence. Second, they disrespect public and private property.” It’s an extraordinary exercise in selective memory and fear mongering. Theirs is a piety that warrants a closer look.
The thing that Bachmann and Kibbe seem to be forgetting is the very different conditions under which these two movements have developed. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party has incredible funding. Why? Because America’s richest corporations and people have a huge stake in their platform of low taxes and freedom of accumulation. Sure, Occupy Wall Street has donations too, but these amount to pennies compared to what’s flowing through FreedomWorks. The Tea Party deals with their complaints against government by electing leaders with less responsibility. This means that they get the support of government officials, including high-profile politicians like Bachmann. Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless movement based on direct democracy over elected officials, which means they have to fight for the most minor political recognition.
For the Tea Party, these conditions allow them to fund demonstrations in huge spaces and rally thousands of protesters from around the country. They can rent port-a-johns for their convenience. They can rent sound equipment (they can even use taxpayer money if they have to). Since the law is made to protect capital (ie. the accumulation of money and territory), the defenders of private property won’t have any trouble from the police. They won’t be intimidated by NYPD in riot gear. They won’t be pepper sprayed, punched or carted away.
We must all fear civil disobedience. But what about hypocrisy? Bachmann and Kibbe seem to have forgotten that the original Tea Party movement actively encouraged civil disobedience. They’ve also forgotten the fact that the movement itself is founded on (and named for) one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in American history.
All that Bachmann and Kibbe are proving is that disobedience simply doesn’t count when you’re acting in the interest of big money and politicians in power. They have the power to forget. Alright, so forget the similarities between the movements, and forget their ideological differences too. If the Tea Party wants to talk about recalcitrance and littering, that’s fine. But if that’s the game they want to play, they’d be wise to start by recognizing who made the rules.