Making Sense of the “Occupy” Movement

A lot has been written about Occupy Wall Street and what it means. There are several different angles to view this phenomenon from, in terms of its message, conduct, and effectiveness. I have questions about all three, and my biggest question is what progress, if not victory, looks like for the movement. Where does it go and how does it define success? I think Occupy Wall Street needs two things it thus far has resisted in order to answer these questions: Leadership and goals.
Calling this a movement in the first place evokes thoughts of such things as the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison, but I think that gets to the heart of my confusion: I don’t know what the Occupy movement wants. Whereas the other movements aren’t something that you win per se, there were clearly identifiable and verifiable goals (non-discrimination, equal rights under the law, and equal work/equal pay to name a few). I know the taglines and the ideas behind Occupy, and I’m not inclined to disagree with them. Income and wealth inequality, a broken financial system, ineffective regulation, anger at the ‘system’ in general – these are all things that I would say “99%” of us can agree with. But these ideas, while critical, are not practical end states. Everyone will have different ideas of what not only constitutes ‘income equality’ but also how to get there. Any movement I can think of that made a lasting impact in terms of social or other change, had at least one clear overarching goal it was striving toward. Further, if not leaders in the traditional sense, clear organization went with the clearly articulated goal or goals.
I’ve read some people in the movement think that it doesn’t need leaders or goals at this point. Fair enough, but I think at some point if Occupy is to gain traction beyond being a mob of people in various cities it will need to clearly identify what it hopes to accomplish. Others have said that the fact people are paying attention and discussing can be considered a success. I think this has some merit, as it has stimulated the national conversation about the economic crisis we are still going through, the causes for it, people affected by it, and how our society is structured. However, unless this is an ultimate goal of the movement, this would be an intermediary step to changes in laws or regulations. If it’s not, I see it as problematic for two reasons. First, people are talking about Occupy’s participants and their conduct as much, or more, than they talk about their economic and social equality ideas. While any movement and its members will be under a larger amount of scrutiny, I think this is particularly acute here in a negative way. Depending on whom you ask, the Occupy movement stands for any number of things including anti-semitism, 9/11 “truthers,” and people that have left modern society behind. Second, there are quite a few stories about crime and poor conduct by the members in the various places they are camped. I think any movement will have a fringe element to it, and I don’t think these aspects negate the broader ideas or the potential that the Occupy Wall Street movement has. Some attention to these types of stories is inevitable, but at this point there is really little else to talk about in terms of how the movement is progressing. The crackdown by local authorities is a different topic.
Clear goals and leadership would necessarily and beneficially streamline the movement, and that’s what I’d personally like to see from Occupy Wall Street. I think that would make it more difficult for a fringe element to co-opt, advance the conversation on the issues and proposed solutions, and make it easier for additional people to support it. I share the anger and the frustration over the economic meltdown, and I’m glad it’s still being discussed. But I think it’s easy for people to be upset at the economy or to want to have jobs, and just as easy to go yell about it. More difficult is to come up with a cohesive voice and potential solutions that lawmakers or Wall Street can act on. I haven’t seen any politician really embrace Occupy in any meaningful way beyond messages of some kind of supposed understanding, and I think that’s because they don’t know what to make of it. No one has apparently asked them to do anything specific, at least not yet.
I see real potential for Occupy Wall Street in terms of positive change, be it regulatory or social, because of the number of people involved. Their overall message resonates with millions and people are paying attention. In fact, I think there may be so many ideas about social and economic equality generated that I’m not sure if the people camped in the town squares are even on board with all of them. But if the ultimate goal is anything beyond discussion and awareness, I don’t know where it goes. Is it a success? Time will tell if this movement joins the ranks of others that are credited with systemic and lasting social change, but Occupy Wall Street will need to make some adjustments of its own before that determination is made.

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