To #OccupyWallStreet, Do More Than Preach to the Choir
It’s one thing to make your voice heard—it’s another to get someone to listen.
If you care about the Occupy Wall Street protest or its goals, reports like this one from the New York Times should worry you.
Critics, even those who sympathize with the movement’s progressive goals, are calling the protests incoherent, homogenous, and unrelatable.
David Roberts, a staff writer at Grist.org, tweeted:
Hippies gather w/ puppets & drums; jerky cops abuse them & shut them down. It's a script every American knows. Causes no one to think anew.
Street theatre has a long tradition in protest culture. The right melody, beat, or image can get into people’s heads and spark a revolution. But any responsible and engaged artist knows that you have to first consider your audience.
It’s not fair that a number of people, and much of the mainstream media, tend to dismiss anything that strikes them as “leftist” or “hippie.” But it’s true, and it’s a fact activists need to compensate for.
A successful movement comes when a large number of people find something in it to relate to. When they can look at the movement and say, “Yes, those people are like me, and what they are saying affects me.”
Rightly or wrongly, a number of Americans see the left and the right as two equally suspicious extremes and fear that siding with either would be straying into unreason.
But if the issues at stake here are rising income inequality or Wall Street’s responsibility for the financial meltdown, they are not left issues. They are not hippie issues. They are issues that most Americans would agree are problems, and we should be able to—forgive the term—capitalize on that.
David Atkins, a vice president of the Ventura County Democratic Central Committee, offered a list of suggestions for how to do just that via Twitter:
2) wear some decent clothes
3) coordinate signs about inequality
4) get a media spokesperson
5) lose the drums
6) make it personal, like playing cards with wall st exec kings of shame
7) get a single message
8) coordinate with other prog orgs
9) lose the che / mao bullshit
10) coordinate with labor. Why should a punk junior analyst make more than a teacher?
11) mock + marginalize them. "Moving $ around to make rich people richer isn't a real job. Get a real job."
12) use the language of Ayn Rand against them. "Where's our bailout money, parasites?"
13) use religious language : "what's today's margin on camels getting through a needle's eye?"
14) hold an impromptu job fair right on wall st. Get thousands of people with resumes out there.
It’s not really necessary to kick out the socialists or put up “You must be this well-groomed to enter” signs.
But an atypical approach that gets beyond people’s stereotype filters could produce atypical results. Thousands of diverse, clean-cut people in suits with resumes camping out in Zuccotti Park might turn a lot of heads that would normally face forward and keep walking.
Now, individual protestors shouldn’t have to bear all the burden of legitimacy.
If the occupiers are decentralized, it’s because major progressive organizations aren’t there for them to center around. The people who commit to show up and stay may be the most polarizing because they are the most active and the most passionate. They are to be commended for risking unprovoked, brutal police attacks.
And even the wacky protestors could spark political momentum for less wacky people to join in, and for legislators to find courage to agitate for populist goals.
But while waiting for these broader forces to converge, we who want to advocate for change should take a hard look at our messages at the individual level. Who is our audience? Who are we trying to convince, and of what? What are they willing to listen to, and how can I speak their language?
To use some of that religious language, try the Golden Rule: Protest unto others as you would have them protest unto you. It might feel really good to, say, compare a Wall Street banker to Hitler, but doing so is unlikely to make that banker take you seriously.
Ask yourself: Am I just venting spleen, or am I changing minds?
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.
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