#OccupyWallSt and the Dilemma of Protest

I went to New York last Sunday for Finovate, but there was something else I wanted to see while I was there. Last Saturday, a few thousand individuals indignant with our current political state attended a US Day of Rage. Their slogan was “One Citizen, One Vote, One Dollar”. The message is that only citizens, not corporations, should have a say in the political process, and citizens should have their campaign contributions limited to a dollar so that everyone has the means for equal representation. The idea was built off of a call from the magazine AdBusters to “Occupy Wall Street” because of the financial industry’s privileged political status and its implications on our economy and society. By the time I got there Sunday, numbers had dissipated to a few hundred who intended to stay indefinitely.

What stood out to me the most in walking around the Financial District were the number of police. They blocked off Wall Street. The blocked off the iconic bull statue at Bolling Green Park. They had a watchtower and tons of cops just watching people wave signs, talk, and bang drums. Basically, they were doing everything in their power to prevent the protest movement from creating any compelling images or feeling welcome to engage in their rights to speech and assembly. If only authorities would put that much enthusiasm into prosecuting financial criminals.

The protesters settled in Zuccotti Square near Wall Street. Most people were holding signs or just sitting around. There was an old woman dressed in all purple with purple hair carrying a sign that said, “I’m 87 and I’m mad as hell.” Someone wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, the image co-opted by Anonymous, held a sign that said, “Can I haz bailout?” A woman from New Orleans who makes Mardi Gras parade floats out of bikes brought one of her creations, a paper mache pink-unicorn-mobile. There was a small buffet set up on a granite bench with the main course being a case full of Skippy peanut butter. The mood was relaxed and festive. Indeed, the many protesters sitting on the ground writing messages on cardboard gave the setting the feel of a craft fair more than a revolution.

I sat down in a pile of cardboard and struck up conversation with some of the protesters. I asked what they thought was wrong, what needed to be done, and what they expected from being out there. While everyone was forthcoming and friendly, the answers were unremarkable, mostly of the general anti-corporate variety. I heard issues raised from environmental protection and drug policy to militarism and the execution of Troy Davis.

I told one protester that I thought that they were a year or two early. He told me that they were a year or two late. I think we’re headed for a bigger round of financial crisis, and in that sense, they would have grounds for more popular support. His stance is that the way the financial system co-opted the political system and public institutions for private gain merited taking a stand long ago.

I think we are both right, but the disagreement gets at something more fundamental. Its shows a disconnect in the validity of the message and the practical ability to spread that message.

While I’m sympathetic with the cause, the marketing of the message fails. Protest, however noble the cause, is victim of framing that took place during the Vietnam Era. Protesters are viewed as outside mainstream society: hippies, rabble-rousers, nerdowells. Who has the time to sleep in parks in New York for a few months? Don’t these people have jobs? They are not hardworking Americans like you and me. The cause loses legitimacy in the eyes of broader America by the means employed to promote that cause. For this reason among others, the protest movements for Vietnam and Iraq were ultimately ineffective.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters play into this framing trap rather than working to remedy it. They want to present themselves as outside mainstream society. They don’t want to live like everyone else. They don’t want to do the jobs that everyone else does. They don’t want to look like everyone else. When you recognize all the injustice that occurs in our society, I can understand wanting to place yourself solidly on the outside.

However, protest is ideally supposed to be an event that generates solidarity with those who share the same sentiments. The self-imposed “otherness” of the protesters prevents that solidarity. By diverging from the core message and adding rhetoric that enjoys less consensus, this protest undermines its aims. It claims to speak for the 99%, but how much of the broader public personally identifies with all the causes advanced by the protest?

What is most unsatisfying about these protests is that the core message does have public consensus. I’m pretty sure most people want the corrupting influence of money out of politics. On top of that, the financial industry does not have many ideological advocates as it currently operates with explicit government backing. Liberals and progressives surely don’t want scare public resources being used to prop up banks instead of directly addressing human needs. Conservatives and market fundamentalists want banks to be subject to failure like every other business. Moderates see that it defies common sense to backstop recklessness because it only incentivizes more recklessness. We all want to see end of the capture of the political process by special interests.

So how should that message be spread and the public called to action? Therein lies the dilemma. Protest and be dismissed. Don’t protest and stand on the sidelines while injustice continues. Maybe this protest movement has potential if it can focus on the role of the financial sector in politics and put aside whatever misgivings it has with the rest of society. They determine whether they can generate solidarity in how they present themselves.

I believe they have been given an opportunity by the acts of violence committed against them by NYPD this weekend (see video below). Everyone stands against violence, especially perpetrated by governments against their own people. Again, if only authorities would put that much enthusiasm into prosecuting financial criminals.

I have a lot of respect for people who can put aside whatever they are doing and try to make the world better. I hope they can step outside of themselves so that their ends may be achieved. If they cannot, then the pink unicorn is an appropriate metaphor for the protests.

Further reading:

Naked Capitalism on how Yahoo and Twitter tried to undermine the protests.

The Big Picture with 10 steps to prevent the next bank crisis and a plan to nationalize the banks the next time around (i.e. bailouts are not necessary; there are tried-and-true alternatives to bailouts).

Here’s a clip of some women getting maced while standing on the sidewalk. YouTube has plenty other incidents here.


  • Skittles

    American political rhetoric demands excess. It does not – never has – required coherence. Perhaps a Pink Unicorn Party will emerge to counterbalance the excesses of the Tea Party.

    • Anonymous

      Why should we believe what you say, Skittles? Clearly you’re just part of the corporate candy complex that fattens our children for your own gain.

      Also, this is a straw man. I’m not arguing for coherence or toning down excess. I’m arguing for a focused message that can generate broad support.

  • James Shanahan

    I think Dan Drezner just came to the same conclusions you did. You should tell him to stop ripping you off.

    • Anonymous

      Original thought is hard to come by. A lot of people are thinking the same things right now, even though their supposed to be “contrarian” positions. I’m not sure what this means.