Occupy Wall Street: unexpected effects

Just over a year ago, I covered the Occupy movement.  At the time, my assessment was that the movement was garnering a lot of attention initially, but didn’t seem to have very coherent goals.  I was a bit skeptical, but interested to see what happened next.

Initially, there were camps, protests, port shutdowns, and confrontations between the protesters and city officials & police.  But eventually, most of the Occupiers stopped inhabiting physical spaces like Zuccotti Park (in many cases because they were forced out).  However, the community built by OWS has remained strong, and has focused on many other ventures.  For instance, many Occupiers have shown solidarity with various unions during strikes, which is the kind of action I was imagining would happen, based on the movement’s roots.

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Occupy Wall Street: long-term goals

In the previous post, I discussed media coverage of OWS and other protester attempts to raise awareness.  But my biggest question is, what do the OWS protesters actually plan to do with the attention and emotion they’ve generated?

Different protesters have different ideas, as covered in NPR’s Planet Money (among many other sources).  For some, the protests themselves are the point — they want to engage members of the public in conversations about the economy, let the world know they’re angry, and in some cases generate ideas for reform.  Many believe strongly in the participatory democracy and consensus decision making of the nightly meetings in NYC (Planet Money, around the 6:30 mark).  Some of them seem to want to change government to make it more like this process.  Others want to change the values that govern society to mirror those of the protesters, so that people care about each other more and want to distribute wealth more evenly.  It is unclear how to go about accomplishing either of these large, vague goals.

Some argue that vagueness is a good thing right now, and that concrete legislative demands will transform the beginnings of a potentially powerful movement into weak laws. Others, like Andrew Smith (Planet Money, 10:00), claim that effectiveness itself is undesirable and will disenfranchise people.  I’m not sure what these protesters are hoping will come of them demonstrations, honestly.

Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges, on the other hand, claims that the protesters want regulation of the financial sector and prosecution of members of Goldman Sachs and other institutions responsible for the financial crisis.  (The CBC anchor’s attack on him and the protesters is pretty amazing to watch — including a debate about whether the term “nutcase” or “nutbar” was used — and CBC later offered an apology.)  I believe that is true, in many cases.  I have also seen some other specific suggestions for regulatory demands made multiple times: End corporate personhood. Limit or end corporate contributions to political campaigns. Regulate lobbyists.  Make the bailed out banks pay back the funds the government gave them. Change individual and corporate tax structure.  Support trade unions.  Increase support for the unemployed.  Increase Medicare and Social Security.

I have, so far, seen only a few calls for individual action outside of protesting.  People are being asked to participate in Bank Transfer Day, and transfer their money from a bank to a credit union by November 5.  Additionally, there’s the Occupy The Boardroom movement, encouraging people to voice their discontent to specific members of Wall Street via email.  That seems potentially amusing and good for blowing off steam — but I’m pretty sure The Boardroom is pretty good at ignoring unwanted items in its inbox.

Has anyone else seen any other specific calls to do something beyond the scope of protesting?  Also, if anyone has any analyses of the likely effects of Bank Transfer Day, I’d love to read them and post more on that topic.

It will be interesting to watch where the protests go from here, and whether OWS leads to a more effective long-term movement.  (Despite the protesters who claim effectiveness to be beside the point or counterproductive, I am clearly biased toward effective actions.)  On The Media interviewed Michael Kazin (around the 7 min mark), historian and specialist in social movements, about what it would take for that to happen:

For it to become a movement, it has to become organized, it has to have recognizable spokespeople, it has to have a strategy and not just a set of protest tactics…. It needs to last longer…, get alliances — not just with some labor unions, but with, perhaps, immigrant groups, perhaps with some people in the left-wing Democratic Party. It needs to do what the civil rights movement did, what the anti-war movement did in the 1960s, what the labor movement did in the 1930s, which is to appear to be the voice of people who have not really had a voice about their discontent, their anger with what’s happened to the American economy….

I think at this stage being a little inchoate, being a little incoherent even, but being very clear about what you’re against more than what you’re for, enables lots of people to take part with their own reasons….  At this stage what they’re doing is very effective [because the coverage itself helps to generate more interest].  If it continues to go on, people in the media will say, ‘Well, you did this for two months.  What are you gonna do next?’


[See also Part 1 and Part 2.]

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Occupy Wall Street: raising awareness

One major goal of protests is to raise public awareness of a cause.  In order to do that, generally protesters hope to generate a lot of media coverage.

OWS has certainly been garnering a lot of attention from the press lately.  It took a while for that to happen, however.  Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight analyzes the amount of media coverage over time and concludes that

the protests in Manhattan…and in other parts of the country, have found two ways to draw attention to their cause. First, keep at it. Second, wait for confrontations with the police.

One of the points covered by my previous protest post was that most modern protests lack the longevity of famed effective U.S. movements like the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.  However, with many people unemployed for a long time and angry about it, there is a large base of protesters able to participate in a more sustained effort (though not all of the OWS demonstrators unemployed).

Police brutality and protester staying power may have driven publicity.  But what kind of publicity is it?  Much of the coverage has been critical,  primarily pointing out the lack of organization or coherent message and the off-putting (to some) hippyish appearance of the protesters.  Even some more neutral coverage from sources such as NPR’s On The Media or Planet Money has set out to try to identify protester demands — and hasn’t ended up able to attribute any clear, united purpose to the protesters.

Some protesters argue that reform of Wall Street and Congress isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s hard to generate a list of pithy slogans and demands for such a big problem (one protester interviewed by On The Media emphasizes this point).  Many protesters view the media attention as a positive thing, even if it focuses largely on the incoherency of the protests.  But does this coverage raise public awareness of anything more specific than, “There are people who are angry?”

One thing that I have noticed is that, as the duration of the protests increases, there have been at least a few more educational pieces about the U.S. economic situation in the media.  Some of these pieces explain why protesters are angry and what they’re up against (sometimes with helpful charts and statistics about the American economic situation).  In addition, the viral campaign, We are the 99%, may be helping to engage more of the public and cause more people to feel angry about the status quo.

So, media coverage and viral campaigns may be starting to increase awareness of issues like income inequality, corporate profits vs. individual wages, and unemployment.  I think a lot of people probably were aware to some extent of these issues (especially unemployment), but perhaps that understanding is being fleshed out with more statistics and historical context.  (I’m curious to find out whether that’s the case — I hope some surveys are being done to compare public knowledge of these issues before/early on in OWS vs. after the protests have been going for a while).

The real question, for me, is what do the protesters actually plan to do with the attention, emotion, and engagement they’ve generated?  As I’ve already mentioned, there isn’t one coherent plan.  In my next entry, I’ll be looking at various proposals for action.

Edit:  see also Part 1 in this series and Part 3.

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Occupy Wall Street

I’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations with a great deal of interest. Last time I covered protest marches, commenter InfoHedon posed a prescient hypothetical:

[I]magine a protest over the banks being bailed out and being rewarded for their lending practices. A protest could provide information on how to change banks and provide protesters with signs showing the local bank or credit union they’re choosing instead. This says that not only are the protesters angry and in number, but they’re also pissed off enough to take meaningful action.

Over a year later, this situation is a lot less hypothetical.  However, for the most part, OWS is being portrayed as having few clear demands and leading to little concrete action outside of the protests themselves.  So, are these protests effective?  Previously, I suggested a number of ways in which protests could have an effect:

  1. bring isolated people together so that they can then organize to take further action,
  2. energize and galvanize people to take that further action…,
  3. provide publicity for a cause,
  4. cause embarrassment and PR headaches for organizations on the other side of the issue, thus pressuring them to change,
  5. and/or publicize alternatives to the current model of doing things.

I also discussed the danger that protesters may feel like attending the demonstration is, in itself, sufficient action.

I will be revisiting the issue of effective protests with OWS in mind, and trying to assess what the demonstrations are actually achieving.  I plan to post on (at least) two topics: raising public awareness of the issues and initiating further action.  If you have any specific thoughts or questions about OWS, I’d love to hear them.

Edit: See also: Part 2 and Part 3 in the series.

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