Cornel West Arrest Leads to Questions About OWS Leadership


On Sunday, at a “Stop the Machine” protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., prominent author and Princeton professor Cornel West was one of 19 people arrested.

The protest was one of the 1,420 similar “Meet-ups” around the world and was in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests, taking a stance against corporate greed.

As the new international movement Occupy Together gains traction, the fact that thought leaders such as West are lending their voices to the movement is telling about the future of the protests’ political leadership – if it chooses to adopt any at all. OWS, whether it continues to protest against the system or attempts to reform it from within, will inevitably include influential figures such as West.

Despite the liberal leanings of Occupy Wall Street, it is increasingly clear that the movement will not be absorbed by the Democratic Party. It will instead have to form its own leadership. 

OWS has been a vocal critic of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama. West, for example claimed that Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”

Because OWS’ criticism has been aimed at the political and economic system, including politicians, the movement will likely seek leadership outside of the current political establishment.

Until now, OWS has largely been leaderless and without a coherent message. Many, including West, have argued that the movement does not need a single message since it is meant to signify the general dissatisfaction and discontent with corporate greed, poverty, and the economic condition of the nation. The over-arching and unfocused movement has chosen to let all protesters have an equal voice, refraining from electing a particular leader.

However, in order to provide a legitimate alternative to the existing political structure, the movement has begun an initiative to elect leaders from its own movement to “all levels of government and get rid of greed and corruption on Wall Street, in our corporations, and in our government, ” according to its “Occupy Party” website.

That the movement has adopted a two-pronged approach – both protesting in an attempt to ask government to change and at the same time searching for possible leaders to change the system – raises questions about what the movement is exactly trying to accomplish. OWS should either focus on changing the system or providing a legitimate alternative in the upcoming elections.

While the movement contemplates whether to select leaders who will voice their concerns in government, it is clear that they must focus their resources and energy on either protesting against government or electing leaders to government.

Whatever direction and form the leadership of the movement takes, one thing is certain: It is sure to include prominent voices such as West’s in its efforts to reform the system. No longer will OWS be a leaderless protest.

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