I recently posted a brief query on the Twitter feed about the ongoing Occupy Wall St. movement, questioning the lack of press it had been receiving. In the meantime, the assorted members of the social media-driven protest have pressed the issue, increased their ranks, and have made it much more difficult for the media to ignore them. The movement has also caught geographic momentum, with this writer personally witnessing a few demonstrations in Boston over the past few days. Other branches have sprung up across the nation. So where is this protest movement headed? Will the protesters have any impact on business as usual in the US?
I am a huge fan of peaceful protests. Whether or not I agree with the particular cause du jour, protest movements are a good way (maybe even the best way) for citizens to participate in the representative political process. The power of protest cannot be overstated; this year's events in the Middle East are great proof of this. Closer to home, some of the greatest social changes in US history were stimulated by protests.
Recently, the financial crisis has led to the rise of the financial system as a subject of interest to various protest movements. Our readers will no doubt be familiar with crisis-related riots in Greece (though these did take an unfortunate violent turn at times). Last fall, I witnessed a few protests in Munich, Germany that had a sign or two referencing bailouts. Similar movements have sprung up all over Europe at times since. In the US, protest movements against Wall St. seem have taken longer to materialize for some reason. Maybe the collective youth of the US is just too busy playing video games. Maybe it is hopelessness over the odds of success that has kept angry citizens at home.
The former barrier is only slightly tongue-in-cheek, while the latter is a more relevant concern. The truth of the matter is that since perhaps the Vietnam era protests in the US have been overwhemingly underwhelming in the results they produce. Even during Vietnam, it took years or protests before US troops left Southeast Asia, and I am sure that any military historians in the crowd today would debate the impact that the various marches on Washington actually had on the policy decisions of that town's occupants.
So what is the problem? Notwithstanding the example given by the Tea Party movement, to the extent that protest movements do gain momentum they typically end up devolving into a hodgepodge of various liberal talking points. For example, the recent Occupy Wall St. protests included, littered among statements concerning the malignant impact bankers and financiers have on 'the other 99%,' demands concerning everything from censorship to poverty to ending war to ending the death penalty. Such things give general detractors and anyone who disagrees with the side issues an excuse to not care.
This is perhaps the reason that the more conservative Tea Party movement was able to gain steam; unalterable focus on one thing. Somewhat ironically (and probably missed by many involved in the cause) the main success they have had in this goal was replacing old politicians with new ones. However, that was about as much success as a protest movement could reasonably be expected to have; if Occupy Wall St. similarly leads to any real political change, it would have to be considered a huge victory for participants. Without that kind of lazer focus, no matter how much energy organizers bring to their cause (which is not inconsiderate in the case of the almost month-old Occupy Wall St. movement), it is far more difficult for them to force their way into serious conversations.
This message was echoed by a recent visitor to Zuccotti Park, Susan Sarandon. Ms. Sarandon, in recently stopping by to chat with Occupiers, mentioned that her one main piece of advice to them would be to focus on one thing. The more protestors follow this advice, the more likely it is that their voices will be heard in the political process. Of course this leads to a rather glaring conundrum; the more voices that get added to the crowd, the more amplified their shouts become. However, the more voices that get added to the crowed, the greater the disparity in the issues they shout about (frankly, someone should tell them that it is difficult to take grown-ups holding balloons seriously as well, but I digress).
If the Occupiers focus on one thing; say, stopping corporate bailouts and corruption, they will increase their odds of gaining more mainstream followers, mainstream news coverage and political traction. Maybe they can even help some of their candidates of choice get elected (for example if Elizabeth Warren ultimately decides to run for something in 2012, her longstanding anti-Wall St. stance would allow her to slot in very nicely as an Occupier-supported candidate). However, until it finds focus, the movement will remain newsworthy only when its participants become arrested with little to show for it beside police records.
UPDATE: Things seem to be going well in NYC for the protesters. The message seems to have been refocused entirely on banks instead of the more scattershot approach which was being taken earlier, and union support will certainly help to swell the ranks. However, public opinion could potentially turn against the movement if much more violence occurs or it the hacktivist group Anonymous makes good on a promise to do something dramatic to the NYSE on Oct. 10. Remember...many Americans are angry with banks, but just as many have 401k plans and get very nervous when bad things happen to their retirement accounts...