The Occupy episode (which I prefer to “movement” in this case) seems to have created its most powerful bastion in Oakland, scene of many social justice fights over the decades. Demonstrators had another march last night, a week or so after attempting to storm City Hall. One protester was quoted in the linked article above as saying that the protesters had “got their message across.”
Um…what message? I read the AP wire story twice, and there was no reference to any policy or social behavior that the protesters wanted to change or reform or abolish or implement. Broadly speaking, successful political movements do two things: first, they transform the rhetoric of their indigenous political culture. So, via their own persistence in communication and presentation, a vast number of people indifferent to the cause of the protesters begin to think about what they are saying, respond to it, maybe reject, but, also, maybe come to believe in that cause themselves. Second, a successful movement, via the specificity of its demands, wins reforms that change for the better the lives of its adherents. So victory begets the energy and determination to seek more victories via more demands. And those who have been hanging back might think, “Hey, these guys are winning. Maybe I should join up with them.”
Think about the following slogans: “Stop the War”; “Join the Union”; “Integrate the buses and restaurants;” “Enable us to exercise our right to vote for the candidates of our choice”,”Pay us the same amount as you do men for the same job;” “Allow us to serve openly in the military and love and marry who we wish”, “Help us a lot more with child care and housework.” And, yes, “Cut taxes and government spending to the undeserving.” Everyone of these demands speak to both criteria above. By their very pointedness, yet also the link between that pointedness and a broader problem of injustice or inequality, they help to change the national conversation, force those in power to respond to them, and help to galvanize more and more potential supporters. And they also create the possibility for provisional victories along the road to utopia. Wars can be stopped, unions can be organized, gay people can marry, husbands can clean up more around the house. Even if more always needs to be done, those victories make the petitioners happier right now, and empower them to demand ever greater reforms. And they keep those in power from getting too smug. They know that back sliding will be met with more insistent demands on their power and accountability.
Occupy started out well with its, “We are the 99%” slogan. Simple and powerful, those remarks really did help to change the conversation in our political culture to one that at least addressed issues of income and wealth inequality. But…now what? There’s no demand in “We are the 99%.” Just an assertion of aggrieved identity. The guy in the news article talked about a message. Marching around and trying charge City Hall isn’t a message, It’s not a demand or series of demand that can inspire the faithful and rally even more to the cause. It’s also not a demand that can really worry those power, and force them to respond. Fixing the door on City Hall is a lot easier to do than giving up significant amounts of power, money, or both.
So until Occupy comes up with some demands like those above, it’s going to stay stuck on the level of an episode not a movement–worthy probably of a few senior honor theses 25 years from now, but not the books and films that have valorized the great movements of social justice alluded to above.