Everybody has a piece of advice for the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. They should put their clothes on. They should stop raising their fists. They should fact-check their handwritten signs. They should appoint leaders who can give pithy quotes to reporters. They should get with an electoral program. Nicholas Kristof even offered to help them out with a neat list of demands, in case those holding signs saying “We Are the 99%” just needed to have the unfairness of the carried interest rule explained to them.
Indeed, their failure to present demands is the most frequently heard criticism of the OWS protesters, not just in the mainstream press but from veteran leftists as well. What do these wan, angry young people want, anyway?
If you spend an hour or two down at Liberty Plaza, as I did with my 8-year-old daughter this past weekend, it’s clear enough. She got the point, at least: especially from the signs that read, “You should teach your kids to share,” and, “Give my mom her money back!! A single working mom…not fair!”
It’s not that the demands being suggested by OWS’s volunteer policy advisors in the blogosphere are not worthy ideas. At a time when we desperately need to rein in financial speculation and change the incentives on Wall Street, a financial transactions tax is a terrific policy proposal. Dean Baker has been talking about it for years. The thing is, we on the left don’t have a scarcity of policy ideas. We are positively bursting with them. Create a housing trust fund! A national infrastructure bank! And, yes, sure, eliminate the carried interest loophole so fat cats don’t get a bigger tax break than working people. (Some even have more radical ideas, which are quite sensible too.) But at best, we get a polite hearing for these ideas, which then fade away or are hopelessly watered down. We simply lack the power to put them into practice.
And in the recent past, even the most smoothly organized, expertly messaged mass demonstrations have not made a whit of difference in this regard. Consider the last big march on Wall Street this past May 12. The coalition behind it was admirably diverse, including unions like the teachers and SEIU’s 1199, as well as local community organizations such as Citizen Action NY, Coalition for the Homeless and Community Voices Heard. The “May 12 Coalition,” which turned out thousands of protesters on the appointed day, presented the Bloomberg administration with a proposal that exhibited great thoughtfulness in its rigor and detail, asking banks like JPMorgan, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley to take a 20 percent cut in their contracts to handle functions like child support disbursements or income tax remittances for the city. This would have saved $120 million, part of $1.5 billion that could have been extracted from the banking sector to prevent the city from having to slash education and social services, according to the coalition.
The May 12 marchers were many things the OWS protesters are not. They were orderly; they truly represented ordinary New Yorkers. They were concrete: they had a plan. But needless to say, the Bloomberg administration did not immediately recognize their plan’s superior logic and fairness and adopt it as a new template. In fact, it received no attention in the wake of the march. It was such a nonstarter that the city didn’t even bother to respond to it. And the media snoozed.
Or consider another very well thought-out mass action in the age of Obama: the “One Nation Working Together for Jobs, Justice and Education” mobilization, which brought throngs of protesters to Washington, DC, on October 2, 2010. Garnering a turnout organizers estimated at 175,000, the march won endorsements from 400 groups, including all the major national unions, the NAACP, environmental organizations, gay groups and progressive religious forces. Organizers were explicit that their goal was to fire up the liberal base and showcase the diversity of the progressive movement. They also came brandishing a plethora of proposals. Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told the Washington Post, “The truth is there is a lot of focus on the march itself, but a march without a plan of action … is simply a one-day event. What this is about is using this march as a launching pad for policy change.” Shortly thereafter, of course, would come the devastating midterm elections, and President Obama’s cave on the Bush tax cut extension. In terms of media impact, One Nation was almost entirely eclipsed by both Glenn Beck’s rage fest a month prior and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s jokey “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” later the same month.
Of course, we need policy ideas. And the progressive groups that have staged previous rallies—like the ones that are sponsoring the “American Dream Movement” spearheaded by Van Jones, convening in Washington, DC, at this moment—are the crucial building blocks of the coalitions necessary to make long-term campaigns around real policy proposals work.
But sometimes, you also need a spark. “Occupy Wall Street,” as an idea and an action, is a stroke of brilliance. It’s not poll-tested or focus-grouped, but it expresses perfectly the outrage that is the appropriate response to the maddening political situation we find ourselves in today. It succeeds as symbolic politics: taking back the square is just what we need to do. And it’s wonderful that unions and community groups that have been working in the trenches will be linking arms with the denizens of OWS this Wednesday.
Maybe this will go nowhere too. The odds are against it, after all. But what do we have to lose? We have to try something new.