To: The Consensus
(Occupy Wall Street),
New York City
The last 10 years have seemed like an era when protestors should have been in the street. The Middle East wars, now entering their second decade, have failed to produce the protests we saw during Vietnam. That isn’t because these wars are more just or have more domestic support, but because we have a volunteer military. Without the draft, young people have no self-interest to protect in the obscurities of foreign policy.
Unemployment continues at the highest levels in 40 years; while officially reported at 8.6 percent at press time, the actual number, including those who have given up looking for work, approaches 17 percent, and the under 25 percentage is greater still. Even U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, in a recent speech, pointed out that the most affluent 400 individuals earned an average of $340 million and paid only 17 percent income tax. Their tax rate is famously said to be below that paid by Warren Buffett’s secretary. Outrage is justified. And so, because a democracy functions best when it exercises the First Amendment and because I grew up in the protest-filled ’60s, I offer a few modest suggestions to Occupy Wall Street.
• Find A Message
John Candy in his holiday movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, played a lonely shower curtain hook salesman always telling endless stories. Steve Martin reminded him that the next time he told a story, he needed to have a point. That movie should be shown at the OWS encampments; these folks don’t seem to have a coherent point.
Michael Gerson, writing in The Washington Post, reports that some of the New York OWS protests were targeting the Church of Scientology. There have been protesters in Philadelphia denouncing Comcast, while in Boston OWS was targeting the Israeli Consulate (the Harvard Club as well). The media has attempted to find a touchstone in the various Occupy encampments, and consequently the slogan “we are the 99 percent” gets a lot of play.
This isn’t a message with which to rally a great number of people, particularly when the 99 percent looks more like 99 people—and those 99 don’t look like most Americans. But more importantly, as one coalesces around the slogan (“we are the 99 percent”), what is its message? It sounds ominously like a lynch mob searching for the 1 percent.
• Size Matters
If an organization does not attract many members, media attention will wane and it will be assumed that the matter is of no importance. OWS attempts to mitigate this problem by claiming that tent-city occupations of public spaces represents a new approach to protest. Those who recall Hoovervilles would beg to differ.
But there is an additional problem with creating the illusion of mass by spreading multi-colored tents out like tail feathers on a peacock. Tent encampments are easily removed by police for reasons of public heath and safety. Once these encampments are cleaned out, as we have seen in Zuccotti Park—and to a lesser extent the OWS encampment in Lafayette Park in D.C.—they do not generally return. And more to the point, the difficulty with tent encampments in northern cities isn’t so much the police as it is winter.
• Define A Structure
OWS claims to operate entirely by “consensus.” Many of its meetings are run by the use of a “human microphone,” a practice whereby a person’s words are repeated back in unison by the assemblage. To use a Star Trek metaphor, it’s Borg-like. Without a defined leadership structure, there is no continuity of message and in a large democracy such as ours, that dooms an organization to failure. You must be able to answer the request, “take us to your leader.”
• Employ the Relevance of Popular Culture
The anti-war movement permeated our culture: one could see it on TV (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), in countless movies (Coming Home), hear its music (Dylan, Ochs), and march in almost every city. What has OWS given this culture—perhaps a new reality television program?
• Know What to Occupy
To occupy something—especially Wall Street, which has been occupied for 300 years—isn’t much of an accomplishment. You should consider occupying Congress by electing better representation. Peter Schweizer, in his new book, Throw Them All Out, documents the “honest graft” of those who currently occupy Congress. Renewing our government is a worthy goal and if you have the stamina and strength to pull it off, you will have a truly historic outcome, like ending the Vietnam War or enacting Civil Rights legislation.
So get out of your tents, take to the streets, go door to door, and occupy Congress via the ballot box. Call us up—there are a lot of experienced marchers who would support that occupation.
Vance K. Opperman,