Stop Occupying Wall Street, and Start Doing The Real Work

As demonstrated by the Occupy Wall Street movement's role in defeating an Ohio bill that would have slashed collective bargaining rights for public workers, there is real potential for the OWS movement to carry out lasting political and electoral change. Despite this success, however, it is important to remember how much banks and other members of "the 1%" have been able to influence politics by working within the political system.

As such, OWS protesters should re-evaluate tactics they are currently using to get their messages across. OWS participants would be far more effective in achieving political change if they spent less time participating in mass demonstrations and more time copying the tactics of formally-organized political organizations.

In the U.S., elected officials and media outlets are conditioned to digest information through the prism of congressional committees, lobbying groups, interest groups, Political Action Committees, non-profits, think-tanks, pundits, and foundations. Given the entrenchment of formally-organized groups around lawmakers and journalists, OWS participants would be more effective if they create focused, issue-oriented organizations that can reach out directly to politicians and the media. "We Are The 99%" written on a piece of cardboard is far less authoritative sounding than a press release from an organization called something like "Citizens for Sensible Banking" or "Americans for Corporate Tax Loophole Reform."

Time spent building and rebuilding tent libraries is time that could be better spent building and re-building long-term relationships with media outlets. Start by writing letters to the editor en masse. Continue by reaching out to individual journalists at local TV, radio, and newspaper outlets with story ideas and angles, and maintain regular contact with them. Public relations firms exist to cultivate relationships with journalists and to feed them stories that show their clients in a favorable light. As nearly every major bank has a PR firm, and nearly every political organization issues press releases, OWS supporters need to build organizations that can broadcast their own set of easy-to-digest talking points about their positions to journalists and producers, and have organization representatives on hand to respond to attacks and criticisms. This way, the OWS movement can reach people who may be turned off by the imagery of protesters clashing with cops, but also fed up with the current economic situation.

More importantly, time spent occupying parks, streets, and bridges in a town or city is time that could be spent campaigning for OWS-sympathetic candidates all across city, county, district, state, and national levels of government. Upstart candidates challenging incumbents bankrolled by various special interests need all the support they can get in connecting with voters. Canvass door-to-door for them during the day, and phone bank for them in the evening. Offer to write and edit press releases on the candidate's response to daily news issues, offer to design campaign literature, and offer to organize mailing lists, campaign appearances, and fundraisers. One more person spending a few hours a day helping out a small campaign is a far better opportunity to make an impact than being one more indistinguishable person in a crowd.

I'm not saying OWS participants aren’t already doing any of these things. But the longer a movement perceived by people who aren't part of it as simply "protesting for the sake of protesting" drags on, the less likely these protests will directly contribute to the legislative reform needed to change the flaws in the system. Getting people together in public to collectively voice their frustrations is a great start. But it's not the finish line for political change and never will be. Real political change comes from focusing on the nitty-gritty, mundane details of organizing, advocacy, debate, and statecraft that will actually compel lawmakers to take action.

As Marshall McLuhan famously stated, the medium is the message. With so much of the news media driven by television and the internet, OWS protesters should ask themselves which image they honestly believe that journalists, politicians, and the general public are more likely to have the credible message to rally behind: The image of a mass of black hoodies, Guy Fawkes masks, and banners with vague, handwritten slogans? Or the image of a business suit-wearing representative of a political organization with an "official"-sounding name and digestible sound bites?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons