Is it time for the Occupy Wall Street movement to reinvent itself?
Disclaimer: I fully expect that this article will receive a fair amount of criticism, with equal vitriol spewed from those within the Occupy movement and those who oppose it. My only hope for this editorial is that it will cause those with the most creative minds and instincts to do some thinking.
For a time, the Occupy Wall Street movement had a novel plan—occupy Zuccotti Park in the spirit of the Egyptians’ occupation of Tahrir Square and rename it Liberty Square. It was a pure symbolic action and even the organizers and early participants didn’t know if it would work. It was an experiment. The idea being that their presence and collective voice would ring forth across the country, encouraging others to flood the streets, or do what was in their power, and thus shift the national political dialogue.
A week after the movement’s public birthday (September 17th) there was still little to no acknowledgment from mainstream press, politicians and commentators. It took the persistence of independent media from OWS itself, Indymedia, Adbusters, Infoshop News and Death and Taxes for the mainstream media to finally take notice. And now that they have, it rather seems like the symbolic value of the occupation has been somewhat misdirected. This was to be expected.
It must be admitted, however, that the arrests and pepper spraying incident at Union Square on September 25th helped galvanize the movement, at least in the eyes of mainstream press—OWS and its supporters, on the other hand, already knew it had the will of the people behind them, if not actually then at least in spirit at the time.
As of late, instead of being about ideas, it has quite predictably become more about skirmishes and evictions; though many commentators have written and spoken intelligently about the movement, such as Matt Taibbi and Dylan Ratigan.
Do not mistake this for a suggestion on my part that Occupy is meaningless—I’ve been one of the most vocal supporters from the very beginning, long before “Occupy Wall Street” was an utterance on the lips of politicians and reporters like Keith Olbermann and Ratigan. Quite the contrary, Occupy still has great meaning, though it needs to consider other methods beyond a presence at various parks across the country.
Occupy has, from inception, been rather de-centralized. It was the idea of open-source (free, user-generated software) pulled into the fabric of three dimensional existence. From a thought and a suggestion to the digital realm, then back to the biological as people gathered and then fed information back onto the internet in a wonderful feedback loop.
But, now it seems that the feedback loop is no longer building in resonance but becoming static. The movement itself is not static—for it is growing beyond measure and becoming worldwide—but the effect is plateauing. The message is being nullified by at least three factors: 1) state action with the police as proxies, 2) mainstream fixation on arrests and skirmishes, and 3) by the protesters themselves who feel that occupying a park is still effective on a symbolic level.
The first two factors would be eliminated if the third factor were discarded tactically.
The suspicion that the tactic was losing its efficacy gained steam in my mind several weeks ago, but the seed had been there since the beginning when I wondered, “How long can this last?” Of course, I was wondering then if the movement would die out, when I should have instead been asking myself when the occupation of a park would become the movement’s vestigial organ.
The events at Occupy Oakland helped finally convince me of the park occupation’s tactical futility. This, of course, is not to suggest that they disperse, only that they devise other methods to counter authority’s emphasis on whether protesters have the right to occupy a park and whether police should enforce laws to evict them. Where the police’s storm trooper tactics once helped feed the message into the mainstream aether (into the feedback loop, as it were) where it was received by the middle and lower classes not at Zuccoti Park, these same confrontations are now causing a sort of signal interruption from the transmitter (Occupy) to the receiver (America).
Though the events between Oakland Police and Occupy Oakland protesters are truly sad—owing in no small part to the police’s aggressive eviction tactics—what did the protesters believe would happen by attempting a re-occupation of the park? The level of absurdity here is on par with Monty Python’s satirical targets. It is, at bottom, a lack of imagination. A lack of creativity. The images of the camp’s destruction were enough to show that an injustice had been carried out; there was no need for an escalation—the public’s imagination had already been captured. It had been captured long before Oakland.
Yes, the Oakland Police destroyed the encampment—but “retake” it as an end in and of itself? Too predictable, too uninspired. March and rally elsewhere, document the truth in personal videos and editorials, but don’t precipitate a confrontation with police.
What is happening is that these evictions have obscured the message and will continue to do so—deadening the resonance and interrupting the feedback loop. Even talk of evictions in independent and mainstream media doesn’t so much reveal the unfairness of the eviction itself, but instead emphasizes the futility of occupying a park.
Many believe that such spectacles are the most effective means of highlighting the chief problem in America: That a counterforce (like OWS) will not be tolerated and so the twin power structures of big business and government will silence it through legal mechanisms such as eviction. Many would also believe that this battle, this spectacle, must be fought in a glossy, Hollywood style so that people will begin, by degrees, to see the state for what it really is—a corporatocracy.
As devil’s advocate, I called on a trusted friend who I consider a clear thinker, and the reply went as such:
What would you have them do instead? Ultimately, protesting could be construed as meaningless because it’s not doing anything [outside of the message], but what other power do the protesters have? They can only make their voice heard. And if protesting, occupying and creating a situation wherein law enforcement has to act like fascist brigades to create some media hype—if that is their only weapon, then what else is there?
The call-to-action and the list of demands (which are many because of the movement’s diversity) have largely been articulated and transmitted by OWS, but the park has served its purpose. New tactics and elements of expression are needed. A symbolic occupation of a park just will not do anymore.
They have everyone’s attention and America is awakened. Now they must think about communicating ideas through real economic and political policies.
Instead of seeing the park as the battlefield, do battle for the minds of Americans. The Occupy Wall Street Journal was a great start. The publishing of a book is also a step in the right direction, as it attempts to focus and reduce the information to something manageable for those who might agree with OWS in principle but are confused about the occupation itself.
But, something more is needed. It will take creativity and the arrival at a core list of policy demands. In doing so, it will require an acknowledgment that not all of America’s problems can be tackled in one go through the vessel of Occupy Wall Street and its various satellites.
To change and win minds, one must communicate to people in the way to which they have grown accustomed. We have been advertised to and brainwashed since birth—by politicians, corporations, issue advocacy groups and religious leaders—and its only through a miracle that we can unravel the layers and penetrate something that is real. And to compete with these layers—which always work to enwrap us again—we must use the very methods such men pioneered to ensure the movement’s ideas are easily seen, read and heard and then imprinted in the brain’s chemistry and sewn into the fibers of the heart. They must be moved by imagery, by words and by voices. Not by propaganda, for that is a deception; but by list of a proposals that will convince people that the movement’s policies would indeed be a good thing for the country.
We all seem to agree, on the left and on the right, that banks should no longer take risky investments only to be bailed out by the government—start there. Demand this in the form of a piece of legislation and then communicate this in the form of an advertisement of sorts.
How can this best be communicated to people? Lobbyists and think tanks help create legislation all the time. Perhaps this will require a documentary on an OWS working group writing a bill, much like Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. A documentary with high production value sent out in the various channels of the internet, which will then be picked up by the media and broadcast on television and considered by journalists and commentators. And behind it, a campaign to get the video to representatives and candidates who plan to run for office in 2012.
This is just one idea. There are many more out there amongst the Occupy movement.
Proclaiming “We are the 99%” got people’s attention, as did the personal stories. But this country needs solutions in the form of policy initiatives and needs press to reach that endpoint, not press detailing the battle over park occupations, which satisfies America’s love of action and drama but does not salve the fissures in American democracy and capitalism.