The Next Steps for Occupy Wall Street

I agree with Nicholas Kristof and Occupy Wall Street’s intellectual spearhead Kalle Lasn: Getting kicked out of Zuccotti Park was a blessing in disguise for the movement. 

OWS now has a chance to gather their thoughts and plan the next steps, freed from the intellectual and physical constraints of the park. With that in mind, here are three things the movement would benefit from:

1) A spokesperson that is not a baby boomer. It’s time for a circa 1973 John Kerry, someone who has been there from the beginning, can travel, speak up, and coordinate activity. Ideally this person would be young, have been subject to police brutality, and not be a white male. It seems, though, that many in the movement are hostile to the idea of “leadership,” with all the vestiges of power and authority it implies. But a spokesperson doesn’t need to be an autocrat. He/she just needs to speak, and occasionally to rally the troops. Are you that person?

2) Broader tactics. It is very difficult to come up with an example of a successful protest. The millions of people who demonstrated against the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t persuade former British Prime Minister Tony Blair or President George W. Bush. If the Janjaweed cared that I once traveled 5 hours to Washington, D.C. to protest the Darfur Genocide, they didn’t elect to e-mail me. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley really did have lasting impact in 1964, but that was not quite analogous to OWS; they were protesting very specific features of an institution that viewed them as stakeholders. Neither condition holds today. 

It is time to translate some of that protest energy into more focused political action, for the grit of campaigns for state officials, community organizing, and some Saul Alinsky-type labor agitation. Some in the movement think the Alinsky legacy of organizing labor into political activity is too “vertical,” filled with hierarchy, leaders, rallies, and demands. I view this as a huge error. If people want to protest, that’s great, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of other types of involvement. To each their own, and in 5 years, we’ll tally who has done more for the public good.

3) Stable Ideology: Specific Goals. Some in the movement view vagueness as a virtue, hearkening back to the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the radical 1960s group Students for a Democratic Society. I would advise them to gaze back even farther to the Communist Manifesto. While calling for the destruction of the entire system, Marx and Engels also advocated a progressive income tax (meaningless in a society without differentiated incomes) and free public education. Revolutionary goals can go hand in hand with more local suggestions. Here are three causes I would like to see the OWS movement take up:

A. Police Brutality. Occupiers seem shocked at the level of violence they’ve experienced at police hands, but as Ishmael Reed reminds us, this is the police force America’s poor minorities have lived with for their whole lives. The hacktavist group Anonymous is mistaken to think vilifying a few “bad eggs” will cow the civilian armed forces into using different tactics. Thinking of Milgram and Zimbardo, I think we are seeing the public face of an oppressive system that needs to be dismantled and rebuilt. I hope to return to this in a later piece.

B. Social Mobility. Something is surely rotten in the heart of Wall St. and in the 1% the movement has rallied around. But as a certain stock-broker who I know very well recently said, “Wall Street’s always been rotten. Now it’s everything else too.” What really plagues America now is an enormous human capital deficit between the top and bottom 20% that absolutely strangles social mobility. This is related to the wealth concentrated at the top, but is more directly about the extremely different worlds that, for instance, college and high school graduates inhabit with huge differentials in health, income, and divorce rates (an interesting counterpoint to the Brooks piece is here) — and that’s not even getting into the prospects for high school dropouts. Worryingly, these conditions are difficult to shake; there is extremely high correlation between parents’ education and children’s success. This is far more important, in the long-term, than the status of the top 1%.

C. Divorcing Corporate Money and Politics. If inequality is really the enemy, then I recommend protesters research its political origins. Particularly, the tight relationship between corporate money and politics is no accident; it has a specific history, retold in the recent book Winner Take All Politics (which I confess is on my “unread” stack: hopefully soon!) and got a big assist from the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case last year (Dworkin makes a strong case against it). But this process is not inevitable, and we need some creative thinking to help reverse it. Occupiers, where are your legal allies? And hey, for the protesters, if you like big, impossible dreams, start agitating for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Photo Credit: Long Island Rose

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