Powerful occupation

October 14, 2011
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The Occupy Wall Street General Assembly. Some rights reserved by BlaisOne.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has grown immensely since demonstrations began in September. Media coverage has exploded as well, much of it emphasizing the movement's lack of focus. The protesters champion the cause of the nation's poorest 99 percent, whose well-being has been neglected in favor of the wealthy few. But what specific remedies do they propose?

It's hard to build and sustain a popular movement around a specific policy demand. Although the Tea Party movement, for example, was sparked by a single demand—don't let the government bail out homeowners facing foreclosure—this was soon eclipsed by a cacophony of activism. That in turn gave way to a political constituency centered not on an isolated policy position but on a slogan-ready principle: government should be smaller. Rick Santelli's rant on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade didn't achieve its immediate goal—the homeowner bailout program went into effect—but it did galvanize a broader movement.

Occupy Wall Street began with a single demand as well. Adbusters magazine proposed demonstrations that would call for "a presidential commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington." The contrast in venue—a nonprofit magazine versus the largest derivatives exchange in the world—is telling. While the Tea Party includes some grassroots elements, it has often served the interests of the powerful. But Occupy Wall Street is governed via direct democracy, with decisions reached through consensus. Thus it is even less geared for message discipline than the nascent Tea Party was.

As Occupy Wall Street grows, so will the pressure for it to offer a concrete policy agenda—or to align itself with others' agendas. At this stage, however, such a move could take considerable wind out of the movement's sails. As with the Tea Party, the group's long-term power may rest in its ability to articulate and maintain a primary principle—whether that's money-free politics or the need for financial regulation or progressive taxation—rather than in spelling out specific laws. A popular movement's role is to awaken people and jump-start democracy.

Whatever its explicit message, Occupy Wall Street has made a powerful statement with its very mode of existence. Newcomers don't face an ideological litmus test; their protest signs aren't edited. People of diverse backgrounds share food; nurses share their skills; everyone has an equal voice. In other words, the group is making a democratic witness by its behavior, even if its message isn't always unified. This approach might be foreign to political operatives and political reporters, but Christians should find it quite familiar.


Letter from Paul Steinke

The editorial on the Occupy Wall Street movement (“Powerful occupation,” Nov. 1) misses the point of this “new thing.” One of my students told me that OWS is based on subsidiarity, the idea that local organizations may perform more effectively than dominant central organizations. So OWS makes consensus decisions for OWS New York, but never for Occupy Oak­land, etc. OWS will never offer any specific remedies, nor will it ever have message discipline or concrete policies or primary principles.

Unlike the protests of the Vietnam era, OWS’s purpose is to awaken people and jump-start democracy by embodying the kind of community they envision. Its message is not unified because in the plurality of America the message is not unified. The music behind the multiple messages for me is don’t forget the “we” -- honor the “we” in “we the people.” Let’s hope that we may be moving beyond the dominant “I” of America’s Enlightenment-driven culture to an era of “we the people,” all carrying signs with different messages and conferring with each other on how to move forward.

Paul Steinke
New York, N.Y.