Occupy Shark Jumping
What do I think about Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its affiliated Occupy [fill in the blank] groups around the country? I’m unimpressed.
Before you jump all over this simple statement of un-support, one qualifier: I believe unambiguously in the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. The New York Police Department, along with the police in Oakland and other cities across the US, as well as those on many university campuses, have not handled themselves especially well throughout these protests. Whatever I think about OWS, I fully support the right of these people to gather and speak, free from harassment, pepper spray, marginally legal spying tactics, etc.
Unfortunately, beyond gifting us the convenient marketing idea of the 99% versus the 1%, OWS has not accomplished much—and marketing slogans are useful, but they’re not enough to create or carry a movement over time. Beyond that one framing device, OWS hasn’t taken us anywhere new: complaining about capitalism is hardly a novelty, nor is focusing on the most nefarious or cronyistic aspects of it, especially after the spectacular crash we have gone through in the last three years.
What would be new is working to point society in a different direction. New might be having a message that is married to a set of priorities, and a plan (beyond demonstrations) for how to get those priorities accomplished. If you look at the most successful movements for change in our society over the last forty years—from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the marriage equality movement now—they all had clear priorities and plans for action that were more than just demonstrations in the streets. They combined their outrage with focused social action and a compelling narrative.
By comparison, OWS and its related protests all feel naïve, as if “Freedom Rock” actually represented the rebelliousness of the 1960s. OWS’s use of smartphones and technologies like Facebook and Twitter to spread their message is done seemingly with no self-awareness of the irony here. (The Daily Show, as usual, nailed this quite effectively in its segment “Occupy Wall Street Divided.”) There’s no aggressive, visible “use their tools against them” push, or a wholesale effort to deploy less corporatized networking systems (of which there are a few, such as Diaspora). That sort of thing would require leaders, for one thing—leadership that the Occupy movements have expressed an explicit desire to avoid. It’s also harder to spot and address the irony when you don’t really have a clear message or understanding of the change you seek. The New York Times’s David Carr nailed the problems in all this in describing the protesters’ desire not to have a political focus. But, again: no focus, no impact.
The economic disparities in our society are hard to dispute. Hell, even the 1% aren’t arguing the point! Nor are such august, pro-capitalism sources like The Economist. But identifying this issue isn’t enough, and over time it may even erode sympathy (to the extent that it exists; it’s hard to tell how widespread the support for the Occupy-ers really is) for that message when there’s nothing else to back it up.
If the Occupy-ers really want to have an impact, a transformational effect on our society, then they should take steps to influence our society directly. Instead of expending oxygen saying there’s no explicit political agenda, or arguing over why it’s important that they remain leaderless … move away from political protest and get engaged in real social change. Perhaps the most valuable thing these people could give is their time—time spent doing something rather than, er, nothing.
Some ideas: Flood the social services systems with support, with active volunteerism. Hit every soup kitchen, homeless shelter, and family service program in the country—especially those for the elderly and for children—and give those working hours to them. For those who are not much for social contact, haul off to farms across the country and agree to help harvest crops for free, in exchange for farmers giving 5% of their yield (for free) to local food banks. In case you hadn’t noticed, there are actually places where there’s a real shortage of farm labor because of all the immigration disputes in the US right now. If farm work isn’t your thing, hook up with the various local “improvement district” type organizations in cities big and small, and put your time to work cleaning streets, maintaining public gardens, and potentially even addressing derelict homes and buildings that are a result of the foreclosure crisis.
Alternatively, OWS folk could embrace the idea that our problems are fundamentally political and social, and decide to tackle those issues directly. So, how about a peaceful movement to Occupy Capitol Hill (or your local statehouse–like the effective coalition of groups in Wisconsin last year)? That would be much more compelling than Zuccotti Park, and would start speaking directly to those who make policy—and can change policy. OWS might even trigger a Constitutional crisis over the right to free speech versus the trumped-up “security” rights of lawmakers and other government officials; such a fight could be very useful.
No, the Occupy-ers won’t get paid for this work; but they were not getting paid for camping out in Zuccotti Park, either. What they will do is demonstrate to everyone that the thing they are most concerned about is the people in our society, and not just the self-aggrandizing glamor that comes from seeing yourself on the evening news when you’ve “successfully” protested somewhere.
The real turning point in my views about the Occupy-ers came with the launch last November of the selfish, over-intellectualized Occupy Student Debt campaign. The group’s simple message was what you might call faux-radical: when a million people sign on, that group of a million will formally abandon their student loans. This “break the debt” concept was bundled with some very valid ideas about the problems of our college and university educational system, a desire for it to be more affordable and accessible, etc. But ultimately I found this morally bankrupt, an attempt to fight the “system” that was more about freeing individuals from their burdens than actually pushing for change. The Occupy-ers had jumped the shark. Or, to put it in context: once again a protest, not really a movement. (Interestingly, there is a new or different group operating under the Occupy Student Debt banner, and their website says they are “not affiliated in any way with the ill-conceived campaign urging borrowers to voluntarily default on their student loans that was launched in late November 2011. We strongly advise anyone with student loan debt NOT to participate in this form of protest, especially given that the law, as currently written, allows lenders and collectors to profit from defaults.”)
Here’s the thing: right now, we are in an era in which far too many of the 99% are focused on getting to that 1% range as their singular life goal. And who can blame them—no one has given them any real alternative way of looking at life beyond the lens of wealth. But Occupy [fill in the blank] isn’t doing that either. Indeed, I can understand why many Americans may simultaneously be sympathetic to the protesters who get knocked in the head in Oakland or pepper sprayed by a cop in New York and yet, still, not rush out to join the “movement.” Until OWS decides it wants to be a movement, with goals that address the actual problems faced by our country, and until it is willing to grow up enough to accept both the challenges and benefits of real leadership, they’re destined to be marginal. Considering all the attention that they have received and continue to receive, it’s actually kind of a shame, not to mention one big lost opportunity.