Thursday, October 27, 2011

From message to movement

Apparently Andrew Sabl spent some time with OWS and came away with some interesting insights.

First of all, he points out that the message of OWS is popular.

According to a Time poll, of those who claim familiarity with the protests (three-quarters of the sample), 86 percent agree that “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington”; 79 percent agree that “the gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large”; “71 percent agree that “executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted”; 68 percent agree that “the rich should pay more taxes.”

He puts his second point rather bluntly: "The people running Occupy Wall Street are flakes." Here's a bit about how he explains it.

They have come to see the protests as ends in themselves. Their official blog disavows the right of any working group to produce demands. On the contrary, saith the blogger, ”[w]e are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted.”

It looks to me like that last sentence is the crux of the matter: "Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted." They are so distrustful of anyone or any system that they are stymied from any kind of real action.

This gets to the heart of something I realized years ago when I felt the gulf between myself and young people today... we grew up in different eras and learned different lessons. For me, the resounding themes of my childhood were words like "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Or "I have a dream..."

The air was different as young people today grew up. Pretty much every system in our political and social world was discredited. To me it started with the Vietnam War through Watergate. But even churches (Catholic sex scandals and TV preachers) and large non-profits (ie, scandals in United Way and Red Cross) showed themselves to be corrupt. These kids were raised on the mother's milk of an almost automatic distrust of larger-than-life individuals and big institutions. The only trust they are willing to extend is to themselves and those they know up close and personal.

In a way, that's a good thing. Real and lasting change does have to come from the bottom up. But on the other hand, that kind of bottom up change is never going to tackle "Wall Street." That's too big of a target and so they are likely to eventually peter out or be defeated.

It reminds me of something Pete Seeger said about the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in this clip.

Speaking of Rev. Martin Luther King, Seeger says:

Why did he start with a bus boycott? Why didn't he start with something important like schools or jobs or voting? I mean, couldn't a bus boycott come later?

When you face an opponent over a broad front, you don't aim at the opponent's strong points. You aim for something off to the side...but you win it. And having won that bus boycott - 13 months it took him to do it - then he moved on to other things.

To take this OWS phenomenon from a message to a movement, I'd suggest that those "empowered communities" they're talking about will need to:

1. Choose a small battle they can win.
2. Find the leverage to take on the battle (any movement needs to organize power to take on the power of the status quo).
3. Rally supporters to take up that power.
4. Be prepared to stick with it - especially when the backlash of the status quo creates hardships for supporters.

Right now the battles OWS seems to be waging are against municipalities and police to occupy public spaces. I don't think that's a message most Americans are going to resonate with. The battle needs to be over the power wielded by the 1%.


  1. This is one of the best responses I've read to the OWS movement. I don't want to dismiss them; I think they're expressing a legitimate anger than many people feel. But if they don't turn their attention to something tangible, the movement will not grow and the general public, now favorable, will turn against them.

    Even the Tea Party, for all their incoherent messaging ("Get your government hands off my Medicare!"), fought (and won) something tangible: a large number of Tea Party elected officials, and other politicos taking them seriously as a result.

  2. Thanks Monala.

    I try my best to give the young generation the benefit of the doubt. Most generations seem to have to figure out their own way and I suspect this one will be no different. And each generation seems to need to reject the ways of their elders. Seems to be in our genes - LOL

    But I do hope there are some wise ones involved in all of this who are engaging their brains and not just their emotions and egos.

  3. Yeah, I'm officially done with the whole occupy movement. It's just not worth the effort to even think about them.