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For protests, simplicity matters

Posted: October 21, 2011 8:32 a.m.
Updated: October 24, 2011 5:00 a.m.

After spending an afternoon with Occupy DC, the District of Columbia's branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I now understand why they avoid formal leaders. For one thing, when things go wrong, it's easier to spread the blame around. That's something the young radicals have in common with the folks on Wall Street and in Washington.

Fortunately, outside of such bad scenes as the group's march to the Brooklyn Bridge that ended with hundreds of arrests a few weeks ago, it is a blessing that more has not gone wrong as the protests have spread nationwide.

That's a tribute to the earnest efforts by thousands of participants to get along and help this startup movement to do ... well, whatever it is that they are trying to do.

Newspersons look in vain for Occupy Wall Street spokespersons to quote. That's frustrating. However, as we saw with the tea party movement, a lack of formal leaders, agenda and structure can work to a young movement's advantage. It also is easier to pull diverse groups and interests together when they don't have to argue a lot about specifics.

For movements moved by anger, it is enough merely to find others who are as upset as you are about whatever makes you upset. As one sign spotted in the New York protest put it, "We're here, we're unclear, get used to it!"

The original call for protests came from the editors of Adbusters, a colorful Canadian anticonsumerist magazine. But no one from the magazine was actively involved in the planning meetings or actual protests that resulted from their suggestion after it rapidly spread over Twitter and other social networks -- and recently has gathered support from unions and other more moderate liberals.

As a result, the nation's capital, which is as much of a magnet for protests as Las Vegas is for poker players, has had two allied tent-city protests going on at once. Besides Occupy DC in a public park three blocks north of the White House, there is Stop the Machine, an antiwar protest camped out in a concrete plaza two blocks to the east of the White House. "We quickly saw a synergy," said Kevin Zeese, a Stop the Machine organizer and long-time area activist. "I think we've changed the conversation here in Washington. I hope we have."

Although both sides hate to hear the comparison, changing conversations is what the tea party is about, too. As the tea partiers came together under such slogans as "Taxed Enough Already," the Occupy Wall Street movement is unified by a similarly broad and simple banner: "We are the 99 percent."

The slogan calls attention to an issue that has received short shrift amid Washington's recent obsession with cuts in taxes and spending: income inequality.

The top 1 percent hold 34.6 percent of all privately held wealth and 42.7 percent of all financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one's home), according to a widely-quoted 2010 report by Edward Wolff, a New York University economist and expert on wealth statistics. And while the share of national wealth held by the bottom 90 percent fell in the 2007 economic collapse, Wolff found, the share held by the top 1 percent slightly increased.

That's enough to make some people take to the streets, particularly on the left, which has grown restless while watching congressional Republicans relentlessly block and push back President Barack Obama's proposed remedies.

Now even President Obama has been tiptoeing closer to standing in solidarity with the protesters, without actually joining them in the tents. "The most important thing we can do right now is (for) those of us in leadership (to let) people know that we understand their struggles and we are on their side," Obama said of the protests in an ABC Nightline interview, "and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you're supposed to do, is rewarded,"

If so, the Occupy Wall Street movement will have accomplished a lot. The left's backlash against the rich is only the beginning of a larger conversation that was kicked off by the right's backlash against Obama. The occupiers don't have all the answers, but they can help the rest of us to raise the right questions.

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