Occupy Wall Street arrived in Washington DC this week. A DC-based Occupy closes the circle around the big money interests who buy government and the elected officials who sell it. In Washington, Occupy DC is really two different groups. One is a small, ongoing protest at McPherson Square, the other, a much larger day-event at Freedom Plaza. Both groups agree on core principles. It’s not democracy if you can buy it, right?
Occupy is now in some 70 towns, according to Mother Jones. Finally the media are watching too, having been shamed by a grassroots Twitter campaign for not covering the story.
This is a turning point. Until now, coverage had mostly consisted of a mention, condescension, or outright ridicule (like Erin Burnett offered up on the first night of her new show.) There has also been a ton of pejorative punditry along the lines of “If they want to be taken seriously, they need to…” But the protesters simply keep going and now mainstream liberal advocacy groups, like labor unions, are also paying attention.
But can the Occupy movement break out of its young-progressive demographic and begin to enlist a larger slice of Americans? A visit to the DC events at both McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza led me to conclude “not yet.”
After seeing Occupy firsthand, it reminds me of the early days of the anti-Vietnam war movement. I was sixteen when I started going to anti-war protests in the 1970s, so I was hardly an organizer. But I did learn a thing or two. Here’s my (affectionate) advice:
- Focus your message. During the 70’s we also had lots of different groups coming together under a single message—End the War! You’ve got dozens of groups meeting and marching together, but each is promoting its own niche, from ending foreign wars, to health care, to child abuse, to well, you get the idea.
Find a single, simple phrase that unites you all, then repeat it often enough for a person who isn’t really paying attention to know it and to understand it. Unite under one banner, not just on one piece of ground. We started out just like you and we spent years stumbling before getting to the next level. It’d be nice if you could get there more quickly.
- Build a movement that has room for a majority of Americans. As a young, progressive activist you probably believe that most Americans aren’t so worthy of marching with you. And you’re probably right. But only a majority movement has any chance of undoing fifty years of entrenched government-for-sale. Your mission is actually much bigger than ours was.
- Find some kids. The event at Freedom Plaza was a fine place to have taken children. But it would not look like it to lots of middle class moms and dads. I didn’t see any kids. In fact the only stroller I saw was being pushed by some guy who rigged it to stream video.
Until people again get used to the idea of seeing nonconformists gathered in groups, it’ll be important for you to put forward the family-friendly face of your movement. Bring your kids next time, or at least your little sister.
- Add an exclamation point—Occupy! Then go stencil it on every boarded up building in the country. One thing Wall Street can tell you is that repetition is the key to message retention. That’s how they created the big lie about being “job creators.” Make Occupy! into a screen saver, a laptop sticker, and a t-shirt.
- To lead from ahead, turn around and look behind. What’s that next, larger circle you want to bring into your movement? How will you get them to join? It’s way too easy for passionate advocates to become shrill and scornful. But nothing kills momentum more quickly. To succeed, make sure everyone finds your welcome embrace. Late is better than never.
- Lose the international baby-killer vibe. That problem takes care of itself when defense contractors no longer control the government. It’s a symptom of disease, not the disease itself. No matter what you believe about our foreign policy, expecting the next ring of people to face up to ugly truths is entirely unrealistic.
Oh, and leave the mutilation photos at home. They get you nothing. Take care of the dirty money and the rest takes care of itself.
- Heroes will be forged in your group. Right now you’re striving to be leaderless, but even without intending it, leaders will still emerge. Let it happen. Leaders are mostly a good thing. Never underestimate the power of a single person’s vision.
Right now, you may be doing the greatest civic duty of your lifetime. So enjoy yourself. Social change is supposed to be hard, but it is also supposed to be fun. If it’s not both, you’re not doing it right. Keep up the good work, fight the good fight, and always keep your eye on the next horizon. Save our country, will ya'?