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Occupy Wall Street Trades in 'The Whole World is Watching' for Watching the Whole World

Occupy Wall Street protesters don’t need old failed ideas, advice from columnists or Barack Obama: they’ve got Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

NEW YORK, NY -- More than 40 years ago, he was in the thick of protests here. And here he was, again, joining in the Occupy Wall Street protests in Lower Manhattan -- marching a pre-approved route inside a police cordon from the heart of the movement in Zuccotti Park to a pre-approved rally in a city square, where traditional activist speakers said traditional activist things to a crowd that, while it wasn’t lacking energy, did nothing that wasn’t traditional for city protests of the last 15 years.

An aging radical, his heyday was a time when, as the police beat them in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention under the glare of television cameras, American youth chanted in unison: “The whole world is watching.” (A phrase today’s New York City protesters resurrected when recently set upon by police on the Brooklyn Bridge.) He mentioned his thoughts to a group of us: The Wall Street protests would have erupted years sooner, if not for the election of President Obama. On the face of it, the analysis seemed credible. Earnest young Americans had put their faith in an dashing young president who seemed to promise hope and change, only to have their dreams dashed on the hard realities of expanding wars, moral comprises, and policies that cater to the rich at the expense of the “other 99 percent,” as the protesters term themselves.

As public intellectual Tom Engelhardt, who attended that same rally, has noted, the protests have almost nothing to do with President Obama. He might as well be a non-entity. Engelhardt wrote: “Amid the kaleidoscopic range of topics on those signs and in those chants and cries, one thing, one name, was largely missing: the president's. In those hours marching and at Foley Square amid the din of so many thousands of massed people, I saw one sign that said 'Obama = Bush' and another that went something like 'The Barack Obama we elected would be out here with us.' That was it. Sayonara.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement has so much more to do with Mohamed Bouazizi, Bradley Manning, and Mona Seif -- all of them in their 20s, all of them breaking new ground -- than it does Barack Obama. (And none of them were influenced by the American president in anything but the most indirect ways.) The nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, by most accounts, wasn’t watching and waiting for Obama to save them -- although plenty of Americans no doubt were -- it was watching similarly young activists in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Greece, Syria, Spain, Belarus and elsewhere. Back in the '60s, Americans said the whole world was watching; today Occupy Wall Street activists are watching the whole world for ideas and inspiration.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement succeeds, whatever that means, it will be because of their youth, inexperience and ability to fend off cooptation and the sure-to-be-destructive advice of aging activists, political opportunists, and liberal commentators with their failed prescriptions, faulty analysis and hopeless notions of “proper” protests. It will be because of a worldwide movement of action-oriented young people to whom Barack Obama is less than an afterthought.

For 26-year-old Tunisian fruit peddler Mohammed Bouazizi, harassment by the police was the final straw in a short life filled with economic privation and few opportunities. Angry at having been mistreated by the local security forces, Bouazizi marched to the local governor's office in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid to air his grievances. "If you don't see me, I'll burn myself," he reportedly declared upon being rebuffed. Within an hour of his humiliation at the hands of the security forces, he had doused himself with gasoline set himself aflame in protest.