Dear protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement:
At Day 27 of your string of protests, I think us skeptics should be obliged to extend you our congratulations for successfully sustaining and growing the Occupy demonstrations. However, as a former protest organizer and lover of any divisive political debate, I would like to voice my concerns and apprehensions about your demonstrations, as well as offer a few harmless suggestions as to how to successfully bring about financial reform.
I admit that my initial reaction to the protests was confusion. Yes, corporate deception undermined the financial market considerably, and yes, many Americans are suffering from an exceptionally high unemployment rate. Yet, without clear solutions or even basic policy suggestions, how could any government even attempt to respond to these wants?
To be frank, no government could successfully answer to the protests as they are currently structured; your haphazard complaints are a mishmash of the generalized ills of every society. Within the last week, we have seen Democratic and Republican party leaders scramble to explain or at least partially identify their position on the spreading of your demonstrations across financial districts. However, the protests, as you have shown, are not a part of partisan politics — an ingredient of your organization that I believe will, with time, prove to be one of your strongest assets.
But while your demonstrations speak to no one in particular, they also ask nothing in particular. The issues you address are broad, and your arguments often lack specifics. In saying this, I am aware that some of you may direct me to your Facebook page’s lengthy list of grievances. Exactly. I have read the list in its entirety, and I can tell you: The list is far too long, far too broad and far too idealistic. Unless there is some sort of dramatic change, this eclectic list will be the death of your movement. You have proven that you possess passion and stamina, two characteristics necessary for reform brought about by civic engagement. All you need is a push in the right direction, or rather what I believe to be these key components: organization, community outreach and politicalization.
Organization is the most vital aspect of any protest; citizens and government officials alike need to see clear goals outlined in order for them to pursue any sort of change. Fortunately, a list of demands or complaints, particularly containing policy initiatives, is not impossible. In fact, many city branches of Occupy Wall Street, such as Occupy Chicago, have already made such concise lists with relative ease.
For example, a policy initiative could simply be blanket support for any statute that protects the interests of small businesses. Use of your leverage to denounce major banks by promising to invest in local banks and credit unions is a way to sidestep the direct discussion of policy and instead force government intervention. Another position that could draw widespread sympathy is the demand that the federal government arrest and prosecute recent corporate criminals, thus creating a deterrent to similar crimes in the future.
In addition, community understanding is necessary in order to attract newcomers and quell opponents. I have witnessed protesters involved in this movement acting aloof and elitist when approached about their purpose in protesting. For instance, some have declared on the Occupy Nashville Facebook page that those who do not understand the goals of Occupy Nashville without explanation “have their heads stuck in the sand.” This type of language, common on many Occupy websites, not only increases the ambiguity of the event, but also turns many potential sympathizers away. Open-minded discussion and debate, as well as the publication of information through physical pamphlets or through social networking websites, will only help you gain more support and credibility.
Furthermore, pretending that Occupy Wall Street’s demands are above politics is irrational. Protests are inherently political and should be treated as such. Which bring me to the third suggestion: politicalization. Include local representatives in the discussions. Hold town hall meetings with diverse political leaders, and ask them to attempt to respond to your complaints. Retaining a nonpartisan front is a strength, but complete disengagement from the current political scene is a mistake. Remember that the only way to rectify the evils of any matter of social injustice is to involve politics, however unsavory that may be.
Civic engagement is an important part of any functioning democracy, and so I commend your protest for its efforts, though they have been largely ineffective so far. With a little more application, I sincerely hope that Occupy Wall Street can actually lead to some significant changes in American society.
Until then, please cut the self-aggrandizing comparisons between the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring.