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How Occupy Missed its Opportunity – Green Dragon
Oct 082012

There was a diary on the Daily Kos Community Spotlight recently which purported to analyze what we have learned from the Occupy movement.

Unfortunately, though well-written and researched, it did nothing of the kind.

The contents of that diary–and I do recommend you go read it, there is some good stuff there–illustrates the very problems that have dogged Occupy from the beginning: a poor understanding of media strategy, inherent limitations due to lack of structural governance, a muddled and unclear agenda, an overgeneralized political analysis which proposed a one-size-fits-all organizing strategy, and a failure to differentiate messages (what it was about) from strategies (how it advocated for that).

Each of the supposed “lessons” listed in the diary is not a lesson learned. It’s a talking point: a message. Each is a concept that Occupy activists (presumably) hoped would be communicated to the American people.

Those five points are little case statements. Agree with them or not, it didn’t take a bunch of illegal campers to convince the writer of that diary–or anyone else–whether or not they were true. The illegal occupations merely served to create a pulpit from which organizers could broadcast these talking points.

The occupations were a strategy for drawing attention to the messages; the points listed by the other diarist were the messages themselves. Got it?

Messages aren’t lessons. Lessons are what you learn after trying something about what works and what doesn’t. And while I’m sorry to say it, the very fact that a spokesperson for Occupy says that a group of talking points are the “lessons” of Occupy indicates that Occupy hasn’t learned the real lessons springing from its experience.

Let me say at the outset that I completely support the original expressed goal of Occupy Wall Street. I’m completely on board about the 1%, the pirate mentality of the financial sector and the toothless sycophancy of its supposed political regulators. But as a longtime political organizer and strategist, I grew rapidly irritated and then appalled by how quickly Occupy killed its own credibility and became a caricature in the eyes of the mainstream voting public.

Be clear: that’s the audience. If you can’t persuade the mainstream voting public, you’re spitting into the wind, and doing it because you find it gratifying for some reason. What you’re not doing, if you’re not trying to persuade mainstream voters, is actually bringing about change.

Here are the real lessons of Occupy, as I understand them:

1) Occupy’s messages about the unfairness, rapaciousness and criminality of the financial sector resonate with a broad swath of the general public, extending deeply into the ranks of mainstream, ordinary middle class voters.

2) Mass civil disobedience in a thematically relevant place–Wall Street–was an effective way to break the mass media embargo on addressing the topics contained in the messages.

3) A 1-size-fits-all attempt to replicate OWS in other places throughout the country rapidly turned Occupy into a dismissible joke: fodder for local news footage of hipster kids “occupying” liberal enclaves that have no more to do with Wall Street and the plutocracy than the simple presence of a bank branch.

4) Lack of governance structure morphed the original, incisive set of messages into an amorphous and meaningless grab-bag of lefty grievances on topics from Palestine to pot prohibition. Again: once that’s your brand, you’ve lost the mainstream public. Occupy needed to get over its anarchistic kid stuff and declare a narrow, reasonable agenda targeted to where its political analysis really resonated with middle class American voters…and expressly to state that it was taking no positions on anything else.

5) When Occupations stopped being inspiring and instead became irritating to ordinary citizens, they were no longer an effective strategy, and they needed to end.

6) Clashes with police sealed the fate of Occupy as fringe and unAmerican. It doesn’t matter who was at fault. As soon as the topic is the DFHs versus the cops, you’ve lost.

7) Fortunately, the messages percolate even after their original presenters have lost credibility. The 2012 elections are still largely framed around the question of “the 1%” versus the rest of us. That is the one great triumph of Occupy.

Occupy could have been far more influential than it was. But given the forces it was arrayed against, it had to be strategic, and it had to be clever. Unfortunately, it was neither, appearing to believe that ongoing displays of raw outrage alone would continue to be influential in the broader political culture.

What if, after Occupying Wall Street for awhile, a leadership team declared that Occupy was done with illegal encampments–and would no longer endorse them, anywhere in the country–but was instead moving on to Occupying board rooms? It could have raised the money for shares in dozens of companies to be purchased, and sent representatives to the shareholder meetings of each, with a specific, documented set of questions about that corporation’s practices, executive compensation, etc. It wouldn’t matter if these Occupiers were barred from speaking…that’s grounds for a press conference. Cue the Yes Men. Cue a song-and-dance routine on the steps of corporate headquarters, a la Improv Everywhere. Cue something that attracts cameras, entertains, amuses and makes the core point.

Yes, that would have required some top-down control. That isn’t a bad thing so long as there is plenty of opportunity for like-minded people who subscribe to the movement’s agenda to join, participate and get their good ideas into the hopper.

What was needed was an intelligent capacity to adapt and continually draw new media attention. Clever, nimble, shifting and entertaining ways of engaging the public with the message points, instead of sticking with the same old thing until Occupy was viewed as a bunch of modern-day Yippies. But Occupy was too primitive, strategically unsophisticated and unstructured to take advantage of its historical moment, and therefore had only a trace of the influence it might have.

THAT is the lesson to be taken from Occupy, in my opinion.

Originally published at Daily Kos

At publication, the Dragon was DISAPPOINTED

  3 Responses to “How Occupy Missed its Opportunity”

  1. Pretty much says it, Dragon. Throughout history, in times of extreme inequality, movements like Occupy have arisen, essentially leaderless because of their hatred of anyone who thought themselves superior enough to lead, disorganized and held together only by their anger. Typically, they throw themselves against the nearest wall of armed, trained Protectors of the Peace and are slaughtered. We live in gentler times so, mostly, what we’ve seen are pepper spray and wielded batons. Doesn’t mean things can’t and won’t get worse, but the outcome (with very few, mixed, exceptions) is going to be pretty much the same. That’s kind of why politics were invented, isn’t it?

  2. Indeed, Buffalo. Because peasant mobs have never led to anything much better than the abuses of their erstwhile overlords.

    I’d also say, that’s why organizing was invented: to shape the emotion and legitimate grievance of the inchoate mob into an effective force for change. But without the art/skill/perspective of organizing, you get the Sans Culottes.

  3. Mark, again you offer a cogent and incisive analysis that overlays structure upon my visceral gripes. My grunt-on-the-ground perspective is, very coarsely, that Occupy was made at best irrelevant, and at worst damaging to the cause in the hands of radical leftists that simply will not make room for any position or tactic that doesn’t fit in the radical leftist cannon of clichés. Don’t tell me that you represent the 99% when you will only act within a framework that is supported by the fraction of 1% of the population that identify as radical leftists. As an Oakland resident, I came to be appalled by the actions of Occupy Oakland when their focus swung very quickly from economic justice to confronting the cops and the city administration. I don’t care who threw the first stone, the violence and vandalism (including against small business owned by 99%-ers, for Pete’s sake) was unforgivable and incredibly destructive to the economic message.

    It is alarming to me that the left fringe has isolated themselves within an outcast hippy mentality while the right fringe installs representatives in congress and state offices. WAKE THE F*** UP, LEFTIES!

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