I love the #OccupyWallStreet protests.
As we enter the third week of the movement opposing big business’s overwhelming civic power, we find that the protest’s messaging — that incredibly important appeal to those tens of millions of Wall Street’s victims on the protest sidelines, victims who are desperately needed to join the activists — is still a serious mess.
Yesterday saw the release of an official OWS statement that was so long, so diffuse, so riddled with eye-glaze moments that only a committee could have written it. Indeed, that is how the OWS communications are being built.
I respectfully submit that this process is completely inadequate and displays a basic misunderstanding about the role of public communications in OWS. I again submit my draft declaration of 9/26 for use as a standard to improve upon without exceeding its word budget.
I’ve been in discussions with numerous activists over the past four days. Below are what I think are the four key takeaways and flaws in the current process.
1) THE NUMBER ONE GOAL OF OWS COMMUNICATIONS IS TO GET MORE PEOPLE TO JOIN OWS
The ultimate standard of success for OWS public communications is found in the count of how many people on the sidelines – non-activst, middle class people – are reached and compelled to show up at the doorstep of the parties responsible for the economic devastation they face. No communication that drifts from that goal is worth releasing. As with every previous social movement from women’s suffrage to civil rights to the labor movement, OWS absolutely depends on growth for success.
2) OWS HAS SPECIAL MESSAGING NEEDS
Speaking purely in terms of messaging, OWS faces extremely difficult challenges that previous progressive movements did not face. The civil rights movement, for example, engaged evidently violent racists in great numbers and in places all over the country. But our target is comparatively far less visible. Economic crime and political corruption bought by big business, having been normalized, is very difficult to see. Our bad guys are not spraying water cannons at us or wearing klan hoods. Instead they are lobbying for pro-business changes to the tax code, spreading pain around the middle class, and pumping billions of private dollars into the electoral process to promote low-tax policies instead of using that capital for domestic economic development.
Because what we oppose is systematic and not self-evident, we can’t publish messages that depend upon a consensus view of the problem. We can’t expect everybody to see what we see. We have to instead explain – very briefly and concretely – why we are standing in front of Wall Street. While I hate to sound like a skipping CD, the draft declaration I wrote on 9/26 does the best job I have so far seen in combining the appeals, drawing the lines of responsibility and providing concrete, digestible and achievable demands to change the priorities of the society.
3) OWS IS NOT A CATCH-ALL
OWS’s overwhelming messaging goal is to attract more allies. It is specifically not to enunciate a list of desired policies, nor to be comprehensive in listing grievances. This is not an opportunity to get everything off of your chest.
After two generations’ history of more or less free reign over our society and democracy by big business interests, it is natural that we have a very a wide range of policies upon which all left activists can agree.
But that is not a reason to shove them all together in OWS messaging. Unfortunately, that is what continues to happen as OWS enters its third week. Grievances about defense spending. About morality deficits. Term limits. The electoral college. Educational policy. I have seen in “official” OWS communications references to all of these and much, much more. Hundreds and hundreds of words.
None of them belong.
Just to pull one example at random out of the pile, let’s look at defense spending as a grievance. I want to show why talking about it in this context not only gains nothing, it harms OWS.
It is a fact that Wall Street’s political and economic power is closely related to the terrible problem of chronically excessive defense spending. It is a fact that opening overseas markets for Wall Street / big business has historically been one role of the US military. Wall Street’s political and economic power expresses itself in many ways, including through the defense establishment. But it does so indirectly and institutionally. The critical fact is that to most of the tens of millions of people on the sidelines of this protest, it does so invisibly.
When we are anxious to get a kick into the military-industrial complex, we should notice that OWS is not standing outside the Pentagon. It is standing on Wall Street (and financial districts around the country). This means OWS should be talking more or less exclusively about banking and big business. Why? Because a huge problem with complaining about defense spending when you are standing in front of a bank is that nearly nobody on the sidelines will understand why you have chosen to stand where you are standing.
A thought experiment at a smaller scale shows us that if we gather in front of a restaurant, but the object of our protest is a gas station, we should expect that to be confusing to people. Even if both the gas station and the restaurant have the same owner.
And if we confuse people, we can’t expect them to join us. So much for converting non-activists into activists.
(Beyond this potential for spreading confusion, there is the potential for spreading disdain. Tens of millions of people look at the military as their protector. Talking smack about their protector will turn them off. And people who are turned off will not join you – meaning doing so is self-defeating.)
4) OWS IS NOT ABOUT OWS, IT IS ABOUT THE VANISHING MIDDLE CLASS
The audience for OWS communications is the people on the sidelines, not for its own activists. Like so many of us, people on the sidelines are out of a job, they’ve been kicked out of their house, their pensions have been looted, their wages are at 1973 levels. Wall Street and big business did that to them – and did so in a very visible way. Probably the most visible of all the ways we have been abused by the intrusions into our civics of concentrated money. Key upon that because, unlike most other aspects of the culture of normalized economic crime, these realities are much easier for the victims to see.
Point these people exclusively, specifically to Wall Street and OWS will get lots of new friends.
Or, talk about oil and wars and watch their eyes glaze over.
UPDATE: I have been working with some good folks on a Google Doc that now contains my draft declaration at
I invite any and all to join in.