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OPINION: Why Occupy Wall Street failed

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A year ago, Occupy Wall Street was at the center of New Yorkers’ consciousness.

The movement stirred up issues that many people were concerned about but never thought would see the light of day in the media – class conflict, inequality of wealth, consolidation of the banking industry, the loss of jobs, the lax and inadequate oversight of finance and banking.

Many of these issues had been center stage in this country as recently as the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty. But, at least since the 1980s, the issue of poverty has been all but ignored.

In addition to attracting many young people who were concerned about paying off huge student loans and not being able to find jobs, Occupy acted as a lighting rod for veterans of earlier protest movements.

People who had been student organizers 30 years beforehand flocked to Zuccotti Park to pick up the banner of protest once again. Books that had long been forgotten by the academic establishment, such as “The Power Elite” by C. Wright Mills, were now being debated anew, and excitement filled the air.

What went wrong? Several things.

The hard-core leadership (although they surely would object to the name) at Occupy deliberately kept a distance from electoral politics, or, as I would say, from the “real world.” One young woman, when asked about this issue, said, “We see the political process as part of the corrupt society – we want to create a new society.” Although people of all ideological backgrounds, from conservative libertarians to Maoists, came to Zuccotti Park, most of the movement’s core supporters were anarchists, a group that doesn’t exactly have a track record at running things.

The problem is that if you want to do “build a new society,” you’d better have the great majority of the American people on your side. The Occupy movement fell victim to its own “99 percent” rhetoric. Maybe 99 percent of the American people didn’t share in the prosperity enjoyed by the very wealthy, but that didn’t make them supporters of Occupy. Many of the Occupiers confused the two square blocks of Zuccotti Park with the world in general, and it just wasn’t so.
 
Another problem was that of Occupy’s insistence on consensus, rather than majority rule. Every decision the group made had to be approved by almost all of those involved. While this might seem like a lofty idea, it meant that every motion was debated time after time, amended time after time, and often, nothing got done. Sometimes, a measure that had, say, 80 percent approval still didn’t pass, because it didn’t have “consensus.” Arriving at decisions by consensus may be a fine thing for a small group of 10 people, but not for 100 or 1,000.

Also, the leadership of Occupy, for the most part, refused to issue position papers or demands. Up to a point, this was a smart move, because it then could invite in people with many diverse points of view. But the movement could have issued some very general demands, such as “reform of the financial system,” which no one would have disputed. Whenever the idea of demands came up, supporters protested – one of them said, “no demand is big enough for us.” Without a clear-cut focus, Occupy became an ideological grab bag. Groucho Marx’s song, “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” could well have applied to Occupy Wall Street.

Finally, Occupy, as far as I know, didn’t form alliances with established groups or people – neighborhood organizations, church groups, social service organizations, public officials – who shared certain short-term objectives, even if they didn’t share Occupy’s philosophy. A case in point – when Occupy came to East New York to protest housing foreclosures there, Councilman Charles Barron, who represents the area, told them to go home. What they should have been doing is contacting every social service, housing and advocacy organization in the area – as well as Barron -- to get as much support as possible. It’s called coalition-building, but Occupy never seemed to get the message.

Occupy Wall Street might be compared with the 1932 Bonus March by veterans on Washington, D.C. Both Occupy and the Bonus March were broken up by force, and both movements lost steam afterward. The Bonus March raised issues that resonated with the American public, and hopefully, Occupy will do the same. The amateurs have done their job – now, it’s time for them to step aside and let the professionals take over.

September 24, 2012 - 9:30am


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