From The Archives: Occupy Crossroads

[ Posted Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 – 18:26 UTC ]

[Sorry for the repeat column today, but I have been too busy to keep up with the fast-developing situation with Occupy Wall Street. So I felt anything I wrote about it today would have been inadequate. I will be addressing the subject in detail soon, but for now wanted to run a column from a few weeks ago, which has some generalized advice which still seems to be appropriate to offer up. Once again, this is kind of generic and has nothing to do with addressing recent developments, which I'll be doing soon.]


[Originally published 10/27/11]

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement seems to be at a crossroads. The path it chooses to take next may be the deciding moment for whether it declines into irrelevance or grows beyond its current boundaries into something larger.

As always, addressing the subject of what I prefer to call the "99 Percenters" movement should or shouldn't do next is fraught with emotion, because one of the strong messages emanating from lower Manhattan is "Don't tell us what to do -- we're doing fine on our own, thanks." Which is why I don't write about the subject all that often, as it can be a minefield for anyone who can't claim street cred of camping out overnight in the park. But several disturbing trends seem to be emerging, which if not addressed could doom the movement to irrelevancy. So I feel it's time to offer some unsolicited (and possibly unwanted) advice.

First, I have to expose a little secret which nobody ever really admits (no matter what their politics may be): protesting (peacefully) is fun. Most protests are a carnival-like atmosphere, which is electrifying to participate in. It is a modern-day "gathering of the tribes" where like-minded people take to the streets and make noise and attempt to get everyone else's attention by doing so. While serious business may have inspired people to attend, to deny the fun aspect of protesting (whether a Tea Party rally or an Occupy march) is to deny reality.

But there's a flip side to this: protesting (violently) is dangerous. It is both dangerous to anyone caught in the violence, and it is dangerous to your cause. Violence turns people off, to put it bluntly. Sometimes violence can backfire on the police -- when they are the ones dishing out all the violence to peaceful non-violent protesters. Everyone, after all, has a camera these days, so photos and videos of such police violence will immediately make the news. But when protesters are the instigators of violence, they lose when the images become public. And it doesn't take many jerks throwing bottles at cops for your entire protest to be painted with the "rioting in the streets" brush. To put it another way, even if 99 percent of you are being Gandhi-esque and peaceful, the one percent who isn't is going to get all the news media attention. This is tough, because so few can ruin things for so many. Adequately stopping it can be downright impossible, in a chaotic situation. But the attempt must be made.

Just before the first major Tea Party rally, I (in the spirit of honoring all protest) offered up some advice:

Protesting in modern day America is (at best) difficult and ineffective, no matter which side of the political spectrum the protests come from. So to conclude this preview of the Tea Parties, I'd like to actually offer some advice to whoever is organizing these events. I have to give them credit, as they've already got a major media network worked up about the day (Fox, which should shock exactly nobody). Getting any media to cover protests is an extremely high bar to cross. And getting them to cover your protest seriously is even harder (instead of the typical: "Oh, look -- protestors! How quaint! How cute!" or, alternatively: "Deranged anarchist mob in the streets... film at eleven" storylines these things usually get in the media). Fox is apparently going to have a day-long Tea Party of their own, which is a media platform most protests never achieve (no matter what they do).

But this gavel-to-gavel coverage comes with a danger of its own. Because most every protest attracts a fringe element to it, which usually has nothing to do with the protest subject itself. This leads to dilution of the main message, at best. At worst, it showcases some serious nut jobs who happen to agree with your protest. They weasel their way onto the stage, and rant and rave about some entirely different subject, often to the embarrassment of the protestors themselves. And the right certainly has some doozies in their tin-foil hat brigades. To be fair, so does the left. But lefties are used to this sort of thing, since they're usually the ones in the streets protesting. Righties don't go in for the popular protest much (unless American military action is somehow involved), so their philosophical "fellow travelers" aren't as generally well-known.

In other words, figure out exactly what you are against. This is already pretty muddied, other than that you hate tea. Pick a theme and stick to it rigorously. Don't let your protest be swallowed in the swamps of irrelevancy, or else your message (such as it is) will be entirely lost, and you even risk being laughed at and wind up looking like buffoons as a result.

So I caution the Tea Party folks, in the bipartisan and sympathetic spirit of celebrating the concept of protest itself (rather than agreeing with their protest's content) -- keep the raving conspiracy-theorists off the stage. If the (non-Fox) media decides to use some bit of choice lunacy as their lead soundbite, you will wind up doing your cause more harm than good.

There are a couple of points contained in this advice which are relevant for the 99 Percenters. The first is what I would call "police your own ranks" -- make it crystal clear that the nut jobs who show up are not a part of your protest, and not sanctioned in any way. The Tea Partiers had big problems (at the start) with groups such as the LaRouche followers showing up with crazy signs and crazy theories. The 99 Percenters have had a few isolated incidents with anti-Semites (because Wall Street = Jews for many conspiracy theorists throughout history). Both the Tea Partiers and the 99 Percenters have done a pretty good job distancing themselves from the fringe folks who show up, and by doing so have strengthened their core movement.

The same is necessary for the violence, although harder to achieve. This is why, back in the 1960s, the F.B.I. (and other government agencies) would often "infiltrate" protest movements and then suggest radical, violent actions (this is documented historic fact). If the protests got violent, the protests lost legitimacy. Now, I am not suggesting any sort of conspiracy of this type is taking place in places like Oakland, mind you, but the lesson is instructive. Movements need to denounce all violence -- no matter who causes it, the cops or their own ranks -- in the strongest possible terms. It needs to be made absolutely clear that such tactics are not sanctioned in any way by the protest itself.

The second main parallel drawn from my advice to the Tea Partiers is that the media matters. Oh, sure, it's fun to berate the mainstream media's monstrous stupidity and shallowness -- in fact, I do so quite often here in these pages. But the 99 Percenters have been given a rather large media megaphone, and they need to start using it better. On one front, they have had an astounding amount of success at changing the conversation in the media universe from "cut all spending" to "hey, what about jobs?" This has been documented -- the media is indeed paying attention and shifting gears to start addressing the protest's concerns. That is an astounding victory -- it doesn't sound like much, but it truly is monumental. The media engages in groupthink -- they decide what is deemed worthy of talking about. The corporate media and the politicians in Washington decide which subjects to obsess about -- no matter what the rest of America is thinking. Breaking through this incestuous barrier is almost impossible these days, but the 99 Percenters have achieved it.

But, at the same time, they are squandering it. And the media has a notoriously short attention span, so they're already ready to move on. Occupy Wall Street has put forth a few people acting as press relations types (who are available for interviewing on television, for instance), and this is something to build upon. The movement, however, is determinedly against having any "leaders" so even this must have been contentious. But the media can't invite a gathering of a thousand people in for an interview, so there needs to be a cadre of spokespeople who can provide this service to the media.

Some 99 Percenters deride the mainstream media, and think that it's not important, because they're getting their message out in alternative media and social networking. This is not good enough, however. To shun the mainstream media is to limit your movement -- in a big way. A few thousand (even a few ten thousand) people on the streets across the country is one thing -- but getting millions behind your efforts is another. From the millions come real power, not from the thousands at the protests. And the only way to adequately reach those millions is television.

Which would the protesters choose: the only time the media reports on the Occupy protests is when it gets violent with the police, or having an articulate spokesman or spokeswoman being interviewed on a Sunday morning political show? Because when the media loses interest in the protest story as a protest story (which is already beginning to happen), this will be the stark choice the 99 Percenters face. Which they choose could be crucial to the future of their movement.

The 99 Percenters have done a pretty good job of defining (without the dreaded "list of demands" the media keeps clamoring for) what they are against. But they are making a big mistake by not getting the message out that they're for anything as well. Which is a missed opportunity. The protesters are (quite rightly) terrified of being "co-opted" by any group, such as the Democratic Party. They don't want to appear to be toadying to Democrats, in any way, shape, or form. That's understandable, but when Democrats do manage to achieve things that the protesters agree with, a message of support is in order. For instance, one of the biggest protest slogans for the past decade has been "End the wars." America is spending trillions of dollars on foreign wars that could be better spent at home, goes this thinking. Well, two wars are ending right now. Libya is over and done with, and cost what amounts to a rounding error at the Pentagon. President Obama just announced the troops are coming home from Iraq. This is good news, and should be good news at the protests. Now, admittedly, I see things through the media filter myself, so there may indeed have been some support given at the Occupy sites for ending these two wars, but if there have been I haven't noticed them.

Or take another example: student loans. President Obama just announced he's speeding up a program to help students bear the student loan burden, and loosening the restrictions so it helps more people. This is a victory for the 99 Percenters. Oh, sure, it doesn't go nearly far enough for many people, and it certainly won't just wipe out all student debt in a twinkling. It is not, in fact, perfect. But you know what? It is the best example yet of the power of the Occupy movement. Think about it: would Obama have even done anything on this issue if Occupy Wall Street had never happened? Possibly, but I have my doubts. I think this plan was quickly put together in the White House to get a jump on one of the biggest 99 Percenter issues -- to make progress, if not solve the entire problem. That is a stunning success. An issue which wasn't even on anyone's radar in the media or Washington got moved to the front burner, and quick action was the result. This is almost unheard of in Washington -- it is truly a remarkable success. Even if Obama's action isn't perfect, you cannot deny that it is a step in the right direction. So where is the support for the president from the streets on the issue? If your movement is never for anything, then you can never measure your own success -- which is limiting (to say the least).

My final advice is to agree with a few articles over at Salon. Occupy Wall Street is in danger of becoming a "protest for protest's sake." They have done an admirable job on many fronts -- raising money, organizing a mini-city in a small space with only volunteers, sustaining the number of people at the protest, organizing events which raise media interest, and many other detail-oriented achievements. But it's all what the military calls "tactics" and not "strategy." It is concentrating on the trees, and ignoring the forest. This point is made much better in an interview at Salon which is worth reading. Also worth reading is this overview of where the movement should go next.

I'll end here with an unrelated point to my advice in general. The Occupy Wall Street protest is in the midst of learning a very valuable lesson -- campaigning is easy, governing is hard. They hold nightly general assembly meetings to gauge the feeling of the group on all sorts of topics. This is both admirable and also instructive. The meetings spend hours on microscopic issues, because full consensus is almost impossible to achieve on all sorts of matters. They are developing a committee structure in an attempt to get things done faster and be more responsive to changing events. But they still have a problem, essentially, with the veto from the crowd. They're mulling over whether to go to a more representative governing structure, rather than just let whoever shows up each night at the general assembly have the final word.

Does any of this sound the tiniest bit familiar? Perhaps it is because I have been studying American history for the past few months, but does any of this remind anyone of Capitol Hill? The same legislative gridlock which happens on a daily basis in both houses of Congress are threatening to overwhelm the Occupy Wall Street protest as well.

As I said, campaigning is easy. It's actually governing that is the hard part.


[Grammatical Note: I think I've actually discussed this here before, but I just had to point out something odd. In that excerpt, I was using the word "protestor" whereas somewhere in the past two years I have begun using "protester." Any thoughts on which is "more correct" or even which is preferable? I'm all ears....]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


24 Comments on “From The Archives: Occupy Crossroads”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Can I just cut and paste my comments from the last run??? :D

    Let me just sum things up, instead..

    The Oowzers have worn out their welcome. I mean, it MIGHT be different if they are actually trying to *accomplish* something..

    But the Oowzers seem to be occupying places simply for the sake of occupying. In essence, they have become squatters...

    I won't even bother mentioning all the crapping and pissing, the rapes, the assaults, the drugs and the crime..

    Ya'all simply ignore that...

    But riddle me this..

    What exactly are the Oowzers accomplishing, besides pissing everyone off in the area...

    Joshua, I'll address a point here that just occurred to me..

    In a previous commentary, you mentioned something along the lines that the businesses and residents in the area could mount a counter-protest.

    WHY should they have to??

    Let me put it another way..

    If you lived in a big house with a huge front yard..

    One day, a group of malcontented spoiled brats, number in the thousands decide they want to protest against the rich. They choose your front yard to do it in because it's centrally located amongst all the rich houses...

    So they squat on your front yard with tents and drums. The piss and crap all over your azaleas and roses, there are drugs all around, your windows are being broken constantly and they are banging drums at all hours of the night. Your family is terrified...

    Now, let me ask you..

    Are you going to gather up your family and friends and mount a counter-protest???

    Or are you going to use any legal means necessary to remove them from your property?? Hell, if you lived in Florida, you could likely shoot a few of the more violent drugged up ones and be perfectly justified..

    My point is simple.. The Oowzers are squatters. They are on Private Property and they are a public nusiance...

    They residents and the business owners also have rights. Jobs are being lost. People are in danger. Residents are terrified. And the hygiene (or lack thereof) is abominable...

    And, since the Oowzers aren't accomplishing anything, other than being a danger to the public and the area....????

    There is absolutely no reason for them to stay and EVERY reason for them to go..

    And if they won't go, then they will be arrested..

    It's that simple....


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Time's up, children

    Pretty much sums it up perfectly...

    It's time people looked at other people's rights, besides the rights of the Oowzers...


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Since we seem to have an "open thread" let me go off on a tangent..

    I read an article where Perry has called for a "part time Congress"...

    Call me silly, but isn't that what we already got??? :D


  4. [4] 
    DerFarm wrote:

    I think, Chris, that you've missed a very important point: OWS and the offshoots are doing just fine by themselves. They have shifted the debate in ways that mainline media, politics, and pundits haven't been able to. By working more-or-less completely outside the system, they have accomplished as muchg and more than all the liberal handwringing in the past 3 years.

    I don't think they WANT to govern. Unlike the TP, these people don't think they have all the answers ... they think they've got the right questions.

    For far too long, liberals in this country have depended upon the established institutions to protect them from the excesses of the corporate and upper class rulers.

    I grew up in JimCrow (the 50's), and I heard all about how negroes needed to go slow, avoid calling adverse attention, watch out that the REAL bad guys didn't get in and squash them.

    MLK was a hero to me, as was GW Carver and Brooker Washington. But you know when I saw the change in white attitudes? The change that really meant that conditions WOULD change? 6/29/64 Because on 6/28/64 Malcom X declared declared a second road to equality:

    We declare our right on this be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.

    It is not enough to have high moral ground. It is not enough to have God on your side. It is not enough to show the misery.

    You have to carry the flower in a clenched fist.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    You have to carry the flower in a clenched fist.

    The problem with that mentality is that, eventually, the clenched fist becomes, not a means to an end, but rather an end in itself...

    The system we have, while it does give advantages to the privileged, it doesn't absolutely forbid or prevent the scrappy from achieving..

    If it did, then I would agree that the Oowzers might have a valid argument...

    There are many similarities between the Oowzers and the Palestinians. While both do have legitimate grievances, the manner in which they choose to express them negates ANY claim to the moral, ethical or legal high ground...


  6. [6] 
    DerFarm wrote:

    Sorry, I got sidetracked.

    I would suggest, Chris, that anyone wishing to influence the future positions of OWS shoud be on the ground at OWS.

    Essentially, to OWS, the ruling class liberals are quite superfluous at this time, the current list of liberal negotiators are irrelevant, and the Madison Avenue liberals (even if they are from SF or Chicago) and ARE NOT A PART OF THE SOLUTION.

    This is not to say that they can't do a lot of damage. From all accounts, parts of the liberal portion of the SuperCommittee are working very hard to reaffirm that the Congressional ruling pantheon can give away as much as the Presidential can and as fast.

    Liberal Mayors in Berkley, Boston, Oakland, Worcester bust heads and "maintain order". Liberals everywhere look to the memory of HHH and cry out for a kinder, gentler National Guard to rein in the excesses of these new generation "Anarchists" (to quote the Police Chief of Boston).

    Where the hell is Nixon when you need him?

  7. [7] 
    DerFarm wrote:


    Your column is read further afield than you might think. I just got a call from a friend now living in Tasmainia, reminding me that the Mayor of Worcester cannot call out the police.

    It was the liberal City Manager.

    My bad.

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Your column is read further afield than you might think. I just got a call from a friend now living in Tasmainia, reminding me that the Mayor of Worcester cannot call out the police.

    If only there was a little APP on CW.COM that would put a little stick pin on a world map that showed the location of all of the accesses to CW.COM....



  9. [9] 
    DerFarm wrote:

    Now THAT would be kewl ...

  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    DerFarm -

    I'll get to the other comments in a minute, but was curious so I went to my stats and looked it up. Here are the countries using the site last month, in the order of how many hits they generated:

    Sweden, Russian Federation, France, Japan, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, UK, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Poland, Australia, Singapore, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Moldova, UAE.

    Those are just the ones identified, most come in as "unknown" so there may be more...

    Also of interest, the site served up 612 files to "US Government", 354 files to "US Military" and 268 files to "US Educational".

    To all and sundry, I say "Welcome, and thanks for visiting the site!"



  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    Secret Service Searched Occupy D.C. Camp For Person Who Shot At White House

    OK... Maybe the Oowzers hate Obama as much as they hate Corporations.. :^/


  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale [3] -

    Heh. Yeah, but with full-time pay and benefits.

    DerFarm [4] -

    Your point about Malcolm X is a good one. I make this point a lot in casual conversation, although I usually put it as: "MLK wouldn't have made as much progress as he did, if there hadn't been a Malcolm X out there as well."

    I remember arguing with some gay friends roughly ten or twelve years ago about the tactic of pushing for gay marriage. My point was "it's the wrong time, you're going to kill Democrats' chances to get elected and make it happen gradually." I was wrong. They were right. They've made more progress than I ever thought possible, by refusing to take the "calm down, it'll happen eventually" route.


  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    They've made more progress than I ever thought possible, by refusing to take the "calm down, it'll happen eventually" route.

    On the other hand, a logical argument can be made that the militancy of the gay movement has held gays back from progressing further...

    One of those things that is logical but that can never be proven..


  14. [14] 
    DerFarm wrote:

    Agitating for social change always happens at the wrong time. There is never a right time. And it is ALWAYS fraught with the at least the potential of violence.

    There is no such thing as social change without violence. We hear much of the violence of the protagonists (John Brown, Leadville, Molly Maguires) and less often will history talk of the vilence of repression (Haymarket, Kent State, Birmingham, Tulsa, Chicago(68), Pine Ridge). In the US violence in the defence of the status quo is a well established practice.

    Advising a muted response in the defence of rights is ask the status quo to change in mime. It won't work. To quote an Punjabi proverb: beg in silence, starve in silence. Only attitude, in your face resistance and a willingness to get hurt will cause change.

  15. [15] 
    DerFarm wrote:


  16. [16] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    DerFarm -

    Are you having technical troubles? Let me know...


  17. [17] 
    dsws wrote:

    Liberals everywhere look to the memory of HHH and cry out for a kinder, gentler National Guard to rein in the excesses of these new generation "Anarchists" (to quote the Police Chief of Boston).

    There really are anarchists at Occupy Boston, last I checked.

    That's been a week or two, though. I don't interact with the camp much, just go there and hold my sign for a while then come home. I didn't see any excesses that needed to be reined in.

  18. [18] 
    Michale wrote:

    Only attitude, in your face resistance and a willingness to get hurt will cause change.

    You mean a willingness to hurt others, right??


  19. [19] 
    Michale wrote:


    Yer positively militant!!! :D I knew there was a reason I liked you.... :D


  20. [20] 
    DerFarm wrote:

    No, Michale, I meant exactly what I said.

    I meant a willingness to defy the Klan and get tied to bridge across Lee Creek with the water rising because you are doing right.

    I mean a willingness to stand on one side of the road to protect organizers while the JohnBirch society screams hate and anger at you from the other side.

    I mean a willingness to take a baseball bat to the knee trying to protect a battered woman from the husband screaming that "she's MINE, the LORD said so"

    I mean a willingness to stand still in the road when the Nazis march down the middle.

    I mean a willingness to not back down when the cops leave and you're facing the Posse.

    I have faith in the essential goodness of people. I pity you that you apparently don't.

  21. [21] 
    Michale wrote:

    As long as you don't mean a willingness to hurt or kill innocent people to achieve your goals, then we don't have a problem...

    I have faith in the essential goodness of people. I pity you that you apparently don't.

    Perhaps if you had seen some of the real world outside the United States, you might feel differently..

    Faith is a wonderful thing..

    But it doesn't help when facing down an AK-47, so a backup weapon is always prudent.


  22. [22] 
    Michale wrote:

    I have faith in the essential goodness of people.

    Which "people" would that be??

    The ones who crap on public buildings??

    The ones who rape and sexually assault women??

    The ones who are threatening to show the world what a molotov cocktail will do to Macys??

    The ones who shoot at President Obama??

    The ones who have child porn at Occupy Chicago??

    The ones who attack and cause injuries to cops??

    The ones who publicly masturbate in front of children at Occupy LA??

    The ones who are part of the Occupy movements all over the country who steal and squat??

    The ones who scream over and over "FUCK THE USA"??

    The ones who advocate violence against innocent people whose ONLY crime is being well off??

    Are these the people you have "faith" in???

    Apparently so, because you spend a LOT of time defending them and absolutely NO time condemning them...

    With these people, you take your faith.

    I'll take my weapons.. :D

    We'll see who'se standing at the end of the night.. :D


  23. [23] 
    DerFarm wrote:

    Apparently, Michale, you know the cost of all and price of nothing. I'll not respond to you again because at this time you have not faith to respond to. But remember:

    I HAVE taken my faith into the night. I AM still standing. While I'm an atheist, the best I can do is


  24. [24] 
    Michale wrote:

    Sorry, you bring religion into it and my eyes just glaze over and I start humming the theme to SWAT.. :D

    Orgainized Religion is responsible for more death and destruction and misery than all world wars and conflicts since, COMBINED....

    You take your faith and I'll take my self-reliance..

    We'll see who fares better in the modern world. :D

    Lemme know if you want to collect that $100 :D


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