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Smart v. Stupid

Do Occupy Wall Street’s critics have a point?

Occupy Wall Street arrived in Washington, D.C. this week. A D.C.-based Occupy closes the circle around the big money interests who buy government and the elected officials who sell it. In Washington, Occupy DC is really two different groups. One is a small, ongoing protest at McPherson Square, the other, a much larger day-event at Freedom Plaza. Both groups agree on core principles. It’s not democracy if you can buy it, right?

Occupy is now in some 70 towns, according to Mother Jones. Finally the media are watching too, having been shamed by a grassroots Twitter campaign for not covering the story.

This is a turning point. Until now, coverage had mostly consisted of a mention, condescension, or outright ridicule (like Erin Burnett offered up on the first night of her new show.) There has also been a ton of pejorative punditry along the lines of “If they want to be taken seriously, they need to…” But the protesters simply keep going and now mainstream liberal advocacy groups, like labor unions, are also paying attention.

But can the Occupy movement break out of its young-progressive demographic and begin to enlist a larger slice of Americans? A visit to the DC events at both McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza led me to conclude “not yet.”

After seeing Occupy firsthand, it reminds me of the early days of the anti-Vietnam war movement. I was sixteen when I started going to anti-war protests in the 1970s, so I was hardly an organizer. But I did learn a thing or two. Here’s my (affectionate) advice:

  1. Focus your message. During the 70’s we also had lots of different groups coming together under a single message—End the War! You’ve got dozens of groups meeting and marching together, but each is promoting its own niche, from ending foreign wars, to health care, to child abuse, to well, you get the idea.
    Find a single, simple phrase that unites you all, then repeat it often enough for a person who isn’t really paying attention to know it and to understand it. Unite under one banner, not just on one piece of ground. We started out just like you and we spent years stumbling before getting to the next level. It’d be nice if you could get there more quickly.
  2. Build a movement that has room for a majority of Americans. As a young, progressive activist you probably believe that most Americans aren’t so worthy of marching with you. And you’re probably right. But only a majority movement has any chance of undoing fifty years of entrenched government-for-sale. Your mission is actually much bigger than ours was.
  3. Find some kids. The event at Freedom Plaza was a fine place to have taken children. But it would not look like it to lots of middle class moms and dads. I didn’t see any kids. In fact the only stroller I saw was being pushed by some guy who rigged it to stream video.
    Until people again get used to the idea of seeing nonconformists gathered in groups, it’ll be important for you to put forward the family-friendly face of your movement. Bring your kids next time, or at least your little sister.
  4. Add an exclamation pointOccupy! Then go stencil it on every boarded up building in the country. One thing Wall Street can tell you is that repetition is the key to message retention. That’s how they created the big lie about being “job creators.” Make Occupy! into a screen saver, a laptop sticker, and a t-shirt.
  5. To lead from ahead, turn around and look behind. What’s that next, larger circle you want to bring into your movement? How will you get them to join? It’s way too easy for passionate advocates to become shrill and scornful. But nothing kills momentum more quickly. To succeed, make sure everyone finds your welcome embrace. Late is better than never.
  6. Lose the international baby-killer vibe. That problem takes care of itself when defense contractors no longer control the government. It’s a symptom of disease, not the disease itself. No matter what you believe about our foreign policy, expecting the next ring of people to face up to ugly truths is entirely unrealistic.
    Oh, and leave the mutilation photos at home. They get you nothing. Take care of the dirty money and the rest takes care of itself.
  7. Heroes will be forged in your group. Right now you’re striving to be leaderless, but even without intending it, leaders will still emerge. Let it happen. Leaders are mostly a good thing. Never underestimate the power of a single person’s vision.

Right now, you may be doing the greatest civic duty of your lifetime. So enjoy yourself. Social change is supposed to be hard, but it is also supposed to be fun. If it’s not both, you’re not doing it right. Keep up the good work, fight the good fight, and always keep your eye on the next horizon. Save our country, will ya?

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 4 »

Oct 13, 2011, 10:51 am
-1 +0


I hope the Sentinel folks don’t mind me posting a link to another news source :) but this Onion story really reminded me of this comment thread.

Oct 12, 2011, 2:06 pm
-1 +3

W@Art Jacobson

Assuming you’re correct and these idiots actually understand what you’re posting about…it’s still retarded. Do they actually expect day traders to just throw up their hands and say “Hey, there’s a bunch of bums outside, so I’m not going to buy and sell any more stocks”? Give me a break…

Perhaps if these bums would put the same energies into finding a job instead of making asses out of themselves then American might be a decent place to live again.

Of course “The political and economic system under which we live has become seriously dysfunctional”, but Wall Street isn’t to blame…uneducated and apathetic voters are to blame. Elections have consequences, and you’re living in them. If everyone actually respected their right to vote enough to actually research their choices and voted their brains and their conscience rather than just blindly voting party lines or skin color then things will finally start getting better around here.

Wall Street is one of the few things that are right about this society. Capitalism works…or at least Adam Smith’s Capitalism works. We used to use that system, and became the most powerful country in the world as a result. We introduced Socialism, where all the indigents of the world suddenly became our problem, and that’s where our economy started to go horribly wrong.

I will blame Wall Street for one thing, though…day traders really need to think about their choices, and think long-term, rather than just buying and selling based on knee-jerk reactions every time history’s worst president makes a speech.

Oct 12, 2011, 1:28 pm
-2 +2


Let me help you out, here. What they are protesting is really very simple and like many very simple things it had been overlooked: The political and economic system under which we live has become seriously dysfunctional.

In the daily round of our lives, as we struggle to pay our debts and to keep our homes we overlook the causes….who has time?

These protesters are like the kid in the story about the Emperor’s New Clothes, saying,” look again, the King is Naked!”

Incidentally, Zuma’s characterization of Occupy as a young peole’s event is mistaken. Plenty of Geezers are pesent. I’m one of them.

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Jimmy Zuma

The Occupy DC rally at Freedom Plaza

Occupy Tucson

Occupy Tucson organizers have announced a planning meeting will be held at noon Sunday at Veinte De Agosto Park, at the corner of Broadway and  Church Avenue, downtown.

"On October 15, 2011, Occupy Tucson will start by occupying Veinte De Agosto Park, which is public land we ALL have paid for through our income and sales taxes. Occupy Tucson will build a mobile sustainable community using Veinte De Agosto Park as ground zero for the non-violent protest and occupation in downtown Tucson," they said in a press release.