Opinion: Occupy Tactics Weakening Its Message

Friday, November 11, 2011 - 12:18 PM

Protestors climb on trucks at the Port of Oakland during Occupy Oakland's general strike. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Even I didn't see this coming, and I was expecting whatever eventual liberal Tea Party would arise to match or go farther than the activists on the right. It still remains to be seen where the heart of this movement will coalesce ideologically, but they've already gone far past the Tea Party in outlandish tactics.

Apparently the Occupy Iowa general assembly voted on a motion by a certain Frank Cordaro that is a sort of plan B, should political campaigns not bend to their will. They're not going to use the democratic process to rally the troops and support candidates that align more with them, potentially in party primaries. They’re going to literally try and shut their campaign headquarters' down.

To be clear, this isn't like those outlandish demands lists or signs at a protest event, where individual occupiers said wing-nutty things. This is before a formal vote of the general assembly of Occupy Iowa, about the tactics the group should use if campaigns ignore their message about corporate greed.  Here’s how it was pitched, according the Des Moines Register:

“You go inside or if they won’t let you in, you shut ‘em down. You sit in front of their doors”

It's not all that often that I have common cause with the two major parties and their political machines, but one thing I think pretty clearly goes overboard is interfering with a party's office, or that of a campaign or any other type of political organization. Staffers and volunteers have a right to work for what they believe in. Someone's rights end at the point where they begin to infringe upon the rights of others.

It's beyond myopic for these people to pretend they are doing some act of virtuous civil disobedience, when really all they're proposing is the political equivalent of crashing someone's wedding.

I wonder how these people would feel if the same was done to them. How would the Occupiers in New York City would react if a huge Tea Party rally walked right through the middle of their encampment and made such a ruckus as to make sure that the General Assembly got nothing done?

I keep thinking back to a fantastic article by Michael Tomasky, himself an overt supporter of the Occupy movement from about a month ago that talked about the way the budding movement was presenting itself. He compared the Occupiers' tactics with those of the Tea Party, the Civil Rights movement in the early 60s and the anti-war reactionaries in the late 60s. He focuses on the image these protestors are giving to the rest of the country, as a mass of people more concerned with expressing themselves than fighting for some sort of cause.

He thinks that the "genius of the Tea Party movement lies entirely in the fact that its public faces were, by and large, regular Americans,” but I think he's only partially right. The Tea Party tapped into a very real concern of a large majority of the country, that a recent Gallup poll illustrated nicely in revealing that twice as many people (64 percent versus only 30 percent)  blame "the federal government in Washington" for the economic conditions facing our country than they do financial institutions. Even 3 percent more Democrats in that poll blame government more than Wall Street. The only group in the poll that thinks otherwise also self-identify as a supporter of Occupy Wall Street.

The Tea Party tapped into that anti-government groundswell, and began coming back down in polls as people began to realize how extreme their positions were on so many issues. The Occupy movement is seriously harming its own cause with childish antics that get them arrested over insignificant things, and showing the vast majority of the actual 99 percent that they are very much not like us.

It's on the Occupy movement to prove to us that they really are like us, and here they are failing miserably. If they want to represent the overwhelming mainstream of America, they need to act like us. They need to act like the civil rights movement and take stances that the vast majority of the country actually agrees on and rally behind them responsibly.

What seems more powerful to you? Blocking the door of a campaign headquarters, so volunteers and staff can't get in and out, or rushing a $50,000 a plate fundraiser hosted by the Obama or Romney campaigns, and refusing to get out of those seats until regular people get a tiny bit as much attention as those millionaires do? Does it make more sense to refuse to leave a park and cry about civil liberties when you are arrested and fined for breaking local ordinances, or have sit-ins in the offices of the Jack Abramoff’s of the world?

Sticking to vagueness and unprincipled civil disobedience only shows that these people are very much not like us. So far they are acting much more like what Tomasky called the late 60s "carnival of self-expression.” I have zero confidence that the Occupy movement people will listen to Tomasky, or non-supporters like myself, but they really should take a lesson from the Tea Party, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, and quit taking direction from rabble rousing, stick it to the man left-wing types that will begin defining the movement in the mainstream soon, much like the right wingers that have come to define the Tea Party.

Solomon Kleinsmith is a former nonprofit worker, serial social entrepreneur and strident centrist independent blogger from Omaha, Nebraska. His website, Rise of the Center, is the fastest growing blog targeting centrist independents and moderates.


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Comments [6]

Solomon Kleinsmith from Omaha, NE

"even when protesters were hit by a car while engaging in civil disobedience to block traffic, and the police let the driver leave but ticketed the injured protesters!"

From my understanding the person that got hit was in the middle of the street at the time. If that's the case, and they had the right of way, of course the cops let the driver go.

I've been reading about how Occupy DC is actually doing some of the things that I think the Occupy Movement types in other people would do well to learn from. Working with local officials, following laws, policing their own camp, etc.

"But with the apparent absence of a specific message, what you say is possible. The "...left-wing types that will begin defining the movement in the mainstream ..." (media). That would be unfortunate."

Unless something big changes... I think it's all but inevitable, assuming it keeps going and grows.

Nov. 21 2011 07:51 AM
Chefhenry from Long Island

Time to bailout the people....Here's an idea that the OWS people can get behind...make every bank reduce the principle balance of every mortgage by 10 - 15%. The banks don't lose a dime, the mortgage is just money they will get in the future, they don't actually have it now. BUT, the homeowner gets a nice cut in their mortgage payment. This would be an actual savings putting more money out there to fuel the economy.

Nov. 15 2011 09:19 PM
Rich from Park Slope, Bk., NY

It's unfortunate but inevitable that Mayor Bloomberg has removed protestors from Zuccotti Park. It's part of the dialectic of establishment politics and the politics of change. What's made OWS interesting is the openness of it, in allowing all views to be expressed and a kind of consensus process for people to raise and discuss issues associated with our political and economic problems. This has been one of the better aspects of the process, but so long as occupying a space is the sole strategy for the movement, the greater difficulty there is in maintaining this open dialog.
For me it's an issue of confusing ends and means. The tactic of occupying a space for protest indefinitely provides a reference point for those who wish either to control it or to confront it. Defending the presence begins to take precedence over providing a forum for the larger issues that the OWS movement provides. There will be more and different efforts to co-opt the movement and to attack the legitimacy of the movement. People can be injected into the crowd to instigate incidents. Provocateurs can work to undermine the openness of discussion towards less civil speech and action, in the name of "defending" the occupation.
What's needed is a wider range of ways to promote the ends of the OWS movement, which seems to be to provide a forum for average people to express their frustration and talk through meaningful ways to deal with the political and economic problems we face. Once it becomes a confrontation between the establishment and the people over the right to assemble and remain in one space, the opportunity to advance the dialog about the other issues that lead to OWS becomes secondary to defending a particular tactic of the movement. It becomes a dialog about safety and about whose rights are being constrained, not about the problems we face as a society.
Another aspect of the tactic of OWS was to emphasize the common concerns of police and occupiers so that the police would become less an instrument of the establishment and more a part of the common desire for change and reform of our political and economic system. The problem is that police MUST follow the orders given to them, and when confrontations occur, there will be a reaction to the police which will result in physical conflict (and some members of the police or the protestors will welcome the conflict, which will escalate the level of conflict). So as long as there is only one tactic, the efficacy of the tactic will be attenuated. There are many tactics in the history of non-violent organizing and protest. The key to the success of the current movement will be to use a variety of means to further the ends of the movement.
I support the ends of the OWS movement, but I yearn for creativity in the range of means available to further the growth of the movement and the clarity of the changes that we can agree on for reforming our society.

Nov. 15 2011 01:08 PM

Occupy DC engaged in an action similar to that suggested by Mr. Kleinsmith: they rushed a Koch-sponsored fundraiser where presidential candidates were being feted. But the press reported that protest with resounding negativity--even when protesters were hit by a car while engaging in civil disobedience to block traffic, and the police let the driver leave but ticketed the injured protesters!

I am beginning to recognize a pattern in these "positive" Occupy pieces: I agree with their message, but ___ action is not the way to do it. Such typical inertia of the comfortable, bureaucratic status quo enjoyers is to be expected

I did not see anybody making headway on these vital issues before Occupy, and still do not see alternatives. If and when that changes, I may consider other methods. Until then, you will find me with the Occupiers.

Nov. 12 2011 01:08 PM

This poor old country mouse sees a huge difference between the Tea Party folk and the Occupy Wall Streeters. It is this:

The Tea Party message can be summed to 'Smaller [federal] government, no new taxes.' Six simple words. [The Vietnam War was opposed by a movement which could be defined in even more simply: 'Stop the war.']

I cannot come away with an equally succinct statement from the OWS groups.

Just what is it that they want of Wall Street? Is it Wall Street only or corporations in general? Banks? Politicians? The rich? Colleges? An unfocussed angst is expected of some teenagers. It cannot, however, be the raison d'etre for a 'movement' which hopes to accomplish something concrete.

Meanwhile, the OWS folk continue to be vilified as a group by the actions of some in or near the encampments. Make no mistake -- it's a powerful response orchestrated by well-organized opponents. It spotlights individual events: 'Man attacked!' 'Public disturbance!' 'Street fight!' 'Unsanitary conditions!' These isolated instances are enough to permit the vague complaints of OWS, such as they are, to be completely drowned out.

The forces arrayed against OWS are capable of sustained effort, amply fueled by each new individual incident. They are 'Shocked! Shocked!' by each new report, each new revelation.

And they are focused.

The OWS people must sharpen their message in dramatic fashion or fold their tents and go home.

Nov. 12 2011 07:49 AM
Harrison Bergeron from NYC


"They're going to shut their campaign headquarters down".

If this is so, I agree that the policy will likely have negative consequences for the Occupy movement.

I have visited the NYC site a few times to observe and talk with people. I would say that the "... rabble rousing, stick it to the man, left-wing types ..." are actually very few. The bulk of the crowd is college age kids. There are also a few hard hats. There is a grandma knitting for peace. A guy set up a sukkah a while back. There was a cigarette smoking booth. Anyone can have their say. Anyone can set up a little stand or display or placard and complain about anything from bankers, to violence against women, to illegal stop and frisk of inner city kids, to drone bombings in Waziristan, to ... anything. Personally, I have not witnessed any illegal or unsanitary activity. There are a few fools. But they are really a very small part of the group.

But with the apparent absence of a specific message, what you say is possible. The "...left-wing types that will begin defining the movement in the mainstream ..." (media). That would be unfortunate.


Nov. 11 2011 08:22 PM

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