The power of discomfort

You’d think after all this time, I would know better than to read comments on YouTube. Most of the time, these things aren’t worth commenting on, but there’s something vital I feel people are missing when it comes to the Occupy movement. I keep seeing comments like this one, regarding a group of UC Davis students practicing civil disobedience by sitting peacefully on a sidewalk after being told to disperse by police officers: “Can somebody please tell me, how does sitting on your ass achieve social justice?”

Seriously? Didn’t you people ever watch Ghandi?

It’s a bit unbelievable, but I see things like this all over the internet these days, making it painfully clear that people don’t actually understand the point of protest, especially the kind of prolonged, non-violent protest being employed by the Occupy movement.

When a group of people want to air a grievance, especially with their government, the easiest thing to do is to sign a petition or write a letter to their legislators… maybe make a phone call for something a tad more confrontational. These are all comfortable options. Comfortable for everyone. We can feel that we’ve spoken up, and our legislators can listen (or pretend to listen) and then proceed with their day. It’s all very civilized, and incredibly easy to ignore, as soon as the moment has passed. Even a single march or protest is easy to gloss over in the hustle and bustle of daily life. At worst, it’s like a trip to the dentist for those who wield power—occasionally painful, but inevitably finite.

It’s the same for us regular folks, too. Most of us aren’t thinking about things like “freedom” or “justice” every moment of the day. Even those who are being constantly oppressed are still mainly concerned with day-to-day survival—putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. And people who are living comfortably are going to be even more eager to let uncomfortable thoughts fade away as quickly as possible.

The point of prolonged protest is to make us uncomfortable. It is intended to make it increasingly difficult for us to push aside the issues being raised, by becoming a constant, visible presence in our daily lives. It is supposed to be inconvenient, and not just for the institution(s) being protested against. It is intended to force all of us to think about these issues, including those of us who are affected by them but have not yet taken up the cause.

The Occupy movement comes out of a frustration with the fact that our comfortably accepted, polite procedures are no longer effective. Our votes are no longer effective. Our petitions, letters, and phone calls are no longer effective. We’ve become easy to ignore. By camping in a public park or sitting in the sidewalk, even after being told to leave by those to whom we’ve (wisely or not) granted authority, these protestors are forcing everyone around them to take notice—to spend at least a few moments of their day thinking about injustice in our society, in hopes that eventually, if they keep it up long enough, they’ll gain the kind of numbers that can’t be ignored by anyone, including those who benefit most from our deeply corrupt system.

The point of visibly and constantly occupying public spaces is to create something that can’t be comfortably or easily forgotten as soon as the moment has passed. And frankly, judging from the overreaction of quite a number of authorities, it’s working.


  1. Yes yes and yes. I got annoyed when I saw quotes from tourists complaining that protestors were ruining whatever they were coming to see. That’s the point, to get in your face. Sorry if the oppression of the people is marring your view.

    I support the movement, but at the same time I see how there as some major downsides. These camp outs can easily become a sort of homeless tent city, rather than a group of activists. That’s a line they need to be careful about. Not saying homeless people can’t protest, since I’m sure there are many of them who are being affected, but I can also see how it can become a convenient spot for them to take root with the protest as a sort of cover. Even activists need to think about their image, or they won’t be taken seriously even by people who support the movement.

    What I definitely don’t agree with is the cops coming into these camps and destroying everything there in the name of “sanitation.” Not that health and safety isn’t important, but they even destroyed the OWS library in New York. I get the feeling law enforcement is getting fed up with dealing with this, but they really need to handle it better, before they also become part of the problem the movement is protesting against.

    • At the Times Square protest, tourists were screaming at us to “go home.” Unbelievable. This is our home, not theirs.

      I respectfully disagree with your characterization of the homeless using the protest as a cover. They are the most vulnerable of the 99%, and if they do not receive food, clothing, shelter from the protesters, then our protests are meaningless rhetoric instead of the attempt to create a better world. I’m thrilled that The People’s University at the Occupied New School has offered winter shelter and food to kids who otherwise would not have it. If taking care of our community means we lose some people’s respect, I don’t care for the kind of respect they could offer.

      • Sorry, I knew it wasn’t coming across right. The homeless definitely need the help that the OWS movement is pushing for. But at the same time, we can’t just start turning all of our parks into homeless camps. That part is a problem.
        On the other hand, if turning public places into homeless camps is what gets the attention that leads to the help those people need…. Well, that’s certainly an upside.

        • I guess I just don’t see homeless people in any way separate from the protests. Those camps are a place where people are sleeping in parks; that’s their function. Public space is public and should belong to everyone.

    • karen simon says

      In 1968, after the police riot at Columbia University, and the occupiers of the library had been trounced, the NY Times had an article the next day, headlined (as if by a police quote) “What’d they want to go and do a think like this for?” with a picture under of a totally trashed library! (which of course, had been demolished by the tactical police force themselves.) does this mean things are getting better – responsibility out in the open, or perhaps, just the same…

  2. More good words well said, Melinda!

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