Putting a Face on #Occupy Wall Street

Over the past week a number of folks have asked me what I think of the Occupy movement. I think a lot of things about it (naturally!) and thought I’d try to craft a few thoughts here.

Occupy Wall Street is a delicious and irresistible idea. It is a net-centric effort bubbling up online and sideways and growing organically around the country. Here is Jeff Jarvis euphorically shouting from the rooftops about the “hashtag revolt.” What more fun could a techtopian ask for? Micah does a fantastic job of providing an overview of the protest here, including the importance of connecting the dots from the Facebook pages to the on-the-ground protests. But the assertion by some that this effort doesn’t need leaders and goals isn’t correct.  No political movement has ever been successful without them.

Let’s be clear: this is a political not a social movement created by the complete and dismal failure of President Obama and his administration to protect average citizens. Here is a great piece by Marshall Ganz, the architect of the movement building piece of the Obama campaign, on the failure of the administration to govern the way it campaigned. The decision by the administration’s inner circle to be incrementalists in a time of enormous disruption misread history, the purpose of their own election and the true needs of the country. Basically, it boiled down, for most people, to banks over homes. Ganz’ piece is nearly a year old, and the disappointment that many people felt last year has turned into rage this year as the President continues to dither and concede. Had a Democrat challenged the President on the left, aka Ted Kennedy, my guess is that a lot of this energy would have gone in that direction. However, today both parties feed at the same monied trough, spawning a timidity on the part of too many politicians and their enablers.

All of these factors makes the OWS effort much closer to the Tea Party than the Arab Spring. It is disgust and anger by protesters against the political party that is supposed to represent them but doesn’t.

Given that context, protests in the streets rather than a primary, here is my wishlist for this movement:

1.Personal Stories. The greatest asset of the protestors is their clear, unambiguous moral outrage. That’s what makes this a movement and not a campaign. In order to resonate with people who aren’t there, the protestors need to put the personal stories front and center. Here is a great page on Tumblr of the stories of the 99% of people who are hurting economically right now. They are graphic and moving and personal. I actually think the whole movement should be called 99% since it includes all everyone and gets away from the unfortunate reference to military dominance connoted with the word occupation. Real people are hurting deeply right now because the political system has failed them. Every communications by the protestors has to start and end with these moving stories.

2. Clarity of outcomes. The protests now can be messy in their side-to-sideness, there is a lot of steam that needs to be let out of the tea kettle (couldn’t resistn some mention of tea!) And it is productive to have people self-organizing and making their outrage known. Ultimately, though, a very clear statement of what is wanted has to be made. And it has to be clear and simple and morally compelling that folks who are the least likely to actually hit the street begin to come out and are counted. Nurses, school teachers, laid off construction workers, moms, dads need to be on board for this effort to be sustainable. And maybe they will. Today there are unions and progressive organizations joining the protest on Wall Street – of course, their participation could also dilute the effort and insert organization needs and, egads!, branding into the effort. The Tea Party success is based on the simplicity of their demands: smaller government, lower taxes. That’s it, and you’re either with them or you’re not.The Occupy movement needs something just this simple beyond the outrage in order to be successful. It doesn’t have to be something easy or immediate, but it does have to be easily communicated. Like: No more corporate dollars in political campaigns. This is something Congress can do something about — if they all weren’t feeding at the same trough.

3. A Face. Movements don’t need institutions to lead them, but they do need a face, a person to represent the moral outrage. Egypt didn’t have one, they say. Not true, Egypt had Wael Ghonim, the Google who sparked the protests by his organizing and arrest. He embodied the protests: he was young, well educated, outraged, fed up and courageous. The Occupy protests need their own Ghonim. Successful movements have heroic faces: Mandela, Havel, Chavez, Ghonim. Unsuccessful ones, the WTO protests and the huge immigration marches, don’t. Just because the event is largely organized online doesn’t reduce the need for a face. Leadership matters, more now than ever because of the failure of institutions to lead. It does, however, mean that that person has to be comfortable with a new style of leadership, more network weaver than corner office. Can Van Jones do it? Maybe, time will tell, although his closeness to the administration is a detriment.




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Allison Fine

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