art of protest

The Ukraine protests have revolutionized the revolution

February 20, 2014
February 20, 2014

A resistance movement escalates. Calls for reform turn violent. Security forces clash with protesters en masse. An encampment emerges to mark the spot where the tide of tyranny was turned back. Convoys of reinforcements from various parts of the country and political spectrums arrive to hold the barricades. Behind the scenes, a government of coalitions considers steps to halt the movement’s momentum. Sound familiar?

This is the revolution paradigm in our mobile media age: Local, crowdsourced, improvised, portable and broadcasting live on all platforms. But do these battles, pitched and otherwise, have anything to teach one another? Or are they merely hydra-headed homunculi, single bodies with separate heads? Here are four things the Occupy movement can learn from protesters in the Ukraine.

Occupy the center

While the Occupy brand quickly gained attention for its symbolic demonstrations around the world, the movement degenerated almost as quickly into a hybrid of endless grad-school seminars on inequality and boot camps for aspiring revolutionaries. Occupy Wall Street, for example, spoke out clearly against what it opposed (greed, bankers, greedy bankers) but was reluctant to espouse what it stood for (transparency, economic regulation, composting). This suggested the image of a fractured contingent of activists with pet causes—not a broad consensus, as still seems to be the case in Kiev, both against president Yanukovych and for new elections. Much has been made recently of the visibility of nationalists and right-wingers on Maidan, but the sort of extreme balkanization seen at Occupy Wall Street does not yet seem to be taking place. Why is that?

Strength in numbers

There is no General Assembly on Maidan, ruling from above. Several hundred thousand people, who have come from all over Ukraine to live in freezing tent cities on the streets of central Kiev, have so far largely decided for themselves. Occupy Wall Street once held rallies with thousands, but the permanent camp in Zuccotti numbered no more than several hundred protesters at any time. The sheer size of the Kiev crowds makes physical intimidation difficult. The police themselves have often been on the defensive, and even a number of Titushki—agent provocateurs paid by the government—have been unmasked and paraded around in front of the media.

Dig in

Occupying the central square is one thing; holding it is another. Maidan is a small city, a microcosm of the wider movement, complete with its own versions of civilian institutions. There are security guards, weapons depots, medical care, canteens with borscht and kasha. The fortifications are extensive, slippery, and topped with barbed wire. Entrances and exits are separate, wide enough for only one person at a time. Huge bags of snow are stacked and covered in water to build more walls. Water is also poured in front of the barricades to create a frozen moat. If the police do come, they will have to come on skates—or from above.

Play for keeps

Some say the Occupy movement failed. Others maintain it succeeded only too well, going global and abstract while being reabsorbed by the establishment. While OWS was able to occupy certain buildings, it did not maintain control and could not consolidate power. In Kiev, the future without Yanukovych has a physical capital, flourishing just beyond the walls and windows of the current regime. It is made of ice, sticks, barrels and tires. But it is not limited to a makeshift physical presence. After renewed assault by government forces two nights ago, protesters have proven that they are willing to throw it all on the pyre, creating a wall of fire between themselves and the Berkut. One might say the protesters have occupied the central metaphor, as well. Whether or not they can avoid being dislodged from the places they have built will be seen in the days to come. For now, a golden toilet sits atop the pedestal where a statue of Lenin once stood, looking on as Kiev collects its dead.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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