Op/ed: Wall St. protesters send jumbled messages
By Micah Smith on October 21, 2011
Now that Occupy Wall Street has spawned sister occupations across four continents, it seems worth it to reflect on what’s happening and where the rapidly growing phenomenon may or may not be headed.
The massive Occupy movement is drawing attention to issues of economic justice that certainly have been left too long out of the spotlight. These include a system that does not hold traders accountable for their risks, a bailout that saves the banks but leaves unemployment stagnant, and a perceived concentration of power in the hands of financial players behind the scenes.
The movement is also immensely effective at attracting attention, be it through the substantial physical presence of tens of thousands of demonstrators, coverage in traditional media, or the trendy use of hashtags on Twitter and other technology tricks.
For these demonstrators, the hope is that the sheer amount of public awareness provides an impetus for some serious national action. But what type of action should we as a nation consider? I cannot say I have a quick and easy solutions at hand.
The problem is that we cannot turn to the Occupy movement itself for any guidance either. When I talked with demonstrators in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the home base of Occupy Wall Street, they were quick to point out that these demonstrations were not organized by any single entity, that those assembled were not “protesters,” and that they had no over-arching agenda or demands. These are cited as advantages of the movement that make the message unique and powerful and allow them to serve as a shrill blast of the trumpet to incite action.
But really this lack of an explicitly stated agenda is problematic. A list of demands would serve as a launch point for coherent discussion on economic justice, whether it inspires a consensus that such demands are constructive, ineffective or somewhere in between. A movement of such scale that does not present the public, with a cohesive objective or even any leadership to serve as mouthpiece risks unnecessarily complicating the situation or appearing overwhelmingly idealistic. More worrisome is that a movement that lives by the ubiquitous “we are the 99 percent” slogan can have the sanctity of its overall message jeopardized by means of the individual messages of any of the 306 million Americans that, by last count, the movement aims to represent. For example, signs reading “end lobbying,” “ban fracking now” and “ban naked credit default swaps” make personal positions abundantly clear, but come at the expense of diluting the long-needed call for economic justice and accountability.
Does a ban on lobbying enable economic justice or does it make the political process less efficient? Does a demand to ban fracking — itself not quite an economic issue — represent the views of the 99 percent, or maybe just 1 percent of the 99 percent? The lack of any organizational hierarchy means that Occupy Wall Street’s rapid expansion has resulted in confusing suggestions like these.
The call for change has been diluted by the myriad of different calls for change.
Granted, these may seem like generalized conclusions to make based on individual demonstrators with individual signs that were conceivably scribbled with a Sharpie in a fit of creativity. But they still distort the image that the movement transmits to the public, making it appear less a cohesive majority of the population and more a haphazard compilation of distinct opinions.
If income had kept pace with GDP growth over the past 35 years, the median household in 2007 would have earned $30,000 more than the amount it actually did. Clearly, our hard-won prosperity is not being experienced proportionally, so the 99 percent are justified to try to instigate some systematic improvement.
But for Occupy Wall Street to succeed to the best of its ability, it must do away with the vagueness and amorphousness that is intrinsic in its presentation. It must take great care to represent the 99 percent as best as possible, and not allow a minority with strongly-expressed views to overshadow everyone else.
• Micah Smith, a resident of Thousand Oaks, is an economics student at Columbia University in New York. He was a finance intern in the Business Times newsroom this summer.