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making a quantifiable difference

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.

October 17, 2011   Comments Off

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.

October 16, 2011   Comments Off

why are U.S. protest marches less effective than they used to be?

[Note: this post has a lower ratio of fact to "I think"/"someone on the internet thinks" than I would like.  Even more than usual, I'd love to know about more facts/research on this topic, if you can point me at any.]

I recently started working part time at UC Berkeley, where I often walk through Sproul Plaza.  Everyone at UC Berkeley talks about the protest culture of the school, and the protesters and protest organizers frequently gather in Sproul.  The other day, I got into a conversation there with an undergrad manning a table that said something like, “You’re radical and I like you!”

Me: What are you promoting?

Him: on March 4th we’re taking part in a march to protest the state of education in California.  We’re trying to get everyone to participate — get everyone at Berkeley to march off campus and into the downtown, but also everyone from the surrounding K-12 schools.

Me: What are you hoping to achieve with this protest march?

Him: Well, we have a lot of complaints… [he elaborates and hands me a pamphlet]

Me: Okay, but how do you hope the march will help address these issues?

Him: Well, there will be a lot of organizations involved.  People will get to see that they’re not alone in caring about this. It’s good to not be alone.

Me: So the march is an end in and of itself — a place to vent frustrations?

Him: Well, no.  We hope to change things.

Me: How?

This went on for a while before I took pity on him and left him alone.  I don’t think he was unusual in not knowing why exactly he was marching — but it got at an issue that I’ve been wondering about for a while, and have only been thinking about more now that I’m in Berkeley.  When and how do protest marches actually work?  It’s clear that they sometimes do have a large impact on society — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, the anti-Vietnam war protests, Gandhi’s march to the sea, and recent effective protests in places like Pakistan, Thailand, and arguably Iran (where the Green movement seems to be bringing about potential long-term social changes, even if the protested election results still stand) provide examples of how protest marches can aid social change.  Why haven’t we seen marches with comparable success in the U.S. recently?

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February 13, 2010   1 Comment