Time for Fresh Eyes on Occupy Wall Street?

By Yinan Hu and Adrienn Szlapak

Occupy Wall Street, a completely leaderless movement that claims to represent 99% of the population against the greedy 1%, staked a claim on a small piece of New York real estate known as Zuccotti Park in September 17.

Employing a range of tactics for media publicity, the movement has gathered thousands of people to occupy Zuccotti Park (private) near in the Wall Street vicinity and staged protesters all over the Manhattan, inspiring solidarity movements globally in 71 cities and drawing disdain from those opposed to their political views.

The unorthodox approach of the Occupy movement—deliberately avoiding sharp, limited demands in favor of a democratic-cum-anarchic call for change—has prompted speculation on the movement's potential success.

In spite of the vagueness of its message, this amorphous structure has proven successful. The undefined mission and intentional disorganization have allowed the movement to be inclusive, drawing people from all different walks of life –from former Wall Street traders to union organizers to professional left-wing activists.

While no one can deny that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has been quite successful in drawing media attention and attracting solidarity movements worldwide, the ultimate effectiveness of its media strategy remains uncertain, due to the lack of defined message and an apparent absence of internal consensus.

The widespread media coverage won by the movement is so far regarded as one of the biggest successes, something that even the initiators did not expect.

“No one knows what’s going to happen the next day,” admitted Throine Peace, one of the media coordinators on the #OWS Media Team, an internal working group based in the middle of the park. “We are carefully letting people grow; now you can’t take it down,” he added during an interview, “the movement is meant to redefine itself everyday with the changes” and indeed no one has predicted the wild attention they have raised so far.

Another member of the Media and the Press Teams, Jason Ahmadi, believes their communications strategy has succeeded particularly well on the Internet.

“We are attacking all fronts” he said. He considers the movement’s website and the relationship it has developed with LiveStream as their biggest success, a place where anyone who is interested can follow what is happening even if they cannot be there.

The spread of “Occupy” protests nationwide triggered also attests to this success; the #Occupy movement in Seattle and Washington D.C. are prime examples of this. In addition, numerous organizations plan to incorporate the idea of #Occupy movement into their own campaign causes. Recently, the idea of bringing Occupy Wall Street together with the Tea Party even surfaced briefly. No matter criticism or support, cooperation or skepticism, the attention #Occupy achieved in just four weeks far outstrips the track record of recent such movements.

Turning this success of media attention into real changes, however, remains a challenge. #Occupy has yet to define a consistent message that can be condensed down to pragmatic political changes. Though everyone in the movement wants a fairer economy and to live a better life, their suggestions for changes vary widely. There are people asking for stricter governmental regulations, while others are urging for smaller government, if not an anarchic society. Some protest against job outsourcing to developing countries, while others hold signs for a truly globalized planet. The only common idea all protesters seem to share is solidarity in belonging to the “99 percent”.

People came to the Park to voice their opinions through the existing publicity, become part of the movement and help expanding the spread with their own outreach efforts. In this case, to reach a consensus among people holding conflicting opinions, if at all possible, and come down to certain specific policy options means to block out a certain group of people, who are part of and have been helping to expand the movement. If Wall Street is facing a protest, the protest is facing a dilemma.

Not surprisingly, this dilemma has caught attention from media, NGOs, scholars and politicians, including former US President Bill Clinton. In a Chicago talk show last Wednesday night, Clinton, who has sympathized with OWS, urged the protesters to come down to more specific political goals and work with people who have the knowledge and power to implement these changes.

“To make the change, eventually what it is you’re advocating has to be clear enough and focused enough that either there’s a new political movement which embraces it or people in one of the two parties embrace it,” Clinton said.

Though it is hard to predict what OWS is heading towards, a growing number of case studies in campaign, advocacy movements or NGO management have discussed lessons learned from the movement. Most of these articles focus on its successful strategy in outreach, while warning future movements to develop a more defined message.

Responding to this debate, Throine argued that a more open approach amplified the movement’s appeal. “If you say this is about one thing at the beginning, lots of people would not have come,” he said. #Occupy is a progressing movement.

Two clear but conflicting efforts to redefine OWS are in the air: one to address their weakness and, as Clinton suggested, “work with a political party” or “form their own.” This allows OWS more space to come down to real changes from the top down. The other would seek to maximize the advantages of an undefined message, or even broaden it. To make any real changes this way, #Occupy would need to influence individuals spiritually from the bottom up.

Still, some common ideas exist in either of these directions: they all recognized #Occupy’s inclusiveness as comparing to the previous protests or revolutionary movements, while at the same time even #Occupy admitted that it is not the same as those organized and targeted campaigns in many ways. This comparison of #Occupy with something it is fundamentally different from reveals a stereotype in the understanding of the movement.

The stereotype about protest movements is that they should have a central message and an organized, effective structure; therefore, when there is no defined consensus within, people think there is something wrong. The premature self-comparison with the Arab Spring may have made the situation even worse as people constantly refer back to it, while forgetting about the progressive redefinition and adaptation of the movement.

What if it is not meant to be a unified movement? What if it is not meant to carry one channeled message? What if it is just “an open resource project”, as they like to call themselves, which hosts an amalgam of ideas from everybody who is willing to contribute, but which has no defined message as a whole? Rather than asking whether this could be the third direction #Occupy could turn towards, it appears “a platform for voices” is what really defines the movement right now.

In this case, debates on #Occupy’s problem based on the ground of “campaign theory” do not shed much light on the future of the movement. If they need to make a decision for their future, it seems they already had made one. The question is, how should the world view OWS from a different perspective. Just as software programmers need to maintain the server, how can OWS keep their momentum and advantage of existing publicity and turn that to the advantage of people and groups who need a place to speak their mind.

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