Occupy Wall Street protesters took to the streets near the New York Stock Exchange today, despite having been forced to evacuate their encampment in Zuccotti Park. This suggests that the symbolic protest ground at Zuccotti does not matter. But whether the enthusiasm for the movement fades depends less on whether protesters have an actual “base” for campaigning and more on the failure to articulate a coherent ideology and a plan to achieve it.
Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York claim that “you can’t evict an idea,” and activists point out that there are similar encampments all over the country – like McKeldin Square in Baltimore and outside City Hall in Los Angeles. The movement is showing signs of waning as OWS camps across cities like Portland, Oregon, have been disbanded, removing their ability to organize and gain a physical presence to spread its message. However, this is not the key reason why the movement will fade if it does; OWS, from the beginning, lacked a clear political message and the relevant solutions to achieve change in our political and economic climate.
Historically successful movements have several key commonalities. One of them is a clear political goal and a feasible plan to achieve this. The civil rights movement argued clearly for black suffrage and was led by the charismatic Martin Luther King, Jr. The Arab Spring protesters knew they wanted to depose their authoritarian dictators, and they could reply on international and domestic pressures arising from their protest to force their dictators to step down. Even the modern day Tea Party movement recognized that in order for their “back to the roots” form of Republicanism to gain legitimacy, they needed to raise money and find candidates to rally around. The OWS movement currently lacks a clear goal and a plan to address it, and whether or not they have a real base does not matter as they can still organize by other means, especially via social media.
Protesters say the slogan “we are the 99%” clearly points to the opposition against the huge income inequality gap in which the top 1% of the population control majority of America’s wealth. They note that they don’t have a single overriding goal because they want to fight against multiple issues to attract a wider breadth of supporters. This, however, prevents them from coming up with a coherent plan to accommodate the many causes they stand for.
The signs peppered throughout the protest grounds are telling. From quoting Goethe (“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free”), rants against the police, to “America for Sale,” the overall message is confusing. Protesters seem to be protesting against the 53% who are telling these protesters to get a job, the police crackdowns against protesters, or the widespread corporatization of America, all under the OWS movement.
The plan to overturn the huge inequality gap is even more confusing. Is OWS advocating that bankers be jailed and the entire Wall Street institution be dismantled, or is it saying that piecemeal reforms are the way to go? Because they stand for so many things, protestors consequently have no clear plan to achieve all of them, and that will prove their downfall, not the loss of a symbolic protest ground.
A symbolic protest ground can make it easier for a movement to gain support by providing a common ground by which sympathetic individuals can congregate.
The Tiananmen Revolution occupied a visible location to broadcast their call for democracy, but the movement starting falling apart during negotiations even before the crackdown by authorities. The student leaders simply could not decide what they wanted from the CCP and quarreled among themselves, as some were willing to accept the CCP’s concessions while the extremist factions felt they were inadequate.
Should the movement peter out, it will not be because it is lost a site for protesters to organize around and broadcast their message. It will be because they have no feasible plan to address the problem. It is a pity, because the movement has genuine grievances supported by large swathes of the population.