Thursday, October 13, 2011

First Blood, Occupy Wall Street and the Future of Protest

Back in 1982, before jingoism and knee jerk patriotism swept both Hollywood and our cultural zeitgeist, a small movie was released starring Sylvester Stallone.  It was called "First Blood" and its protagonist, John Rambo, a disillusioned, down on his luck, unemployable Vietnam Veteran, runs afoul of a chief of police in small-town U.S.A. What the Chief does not find out until Rambo has escaped custody, led the chief and his posse into the mountains surrounding the town and then systematically disarmed and wounded them is that Rambo is a highly trained Green Beret - essentially unstoppable by a lightly trained police force unequipped to deal with a lethal killing machine.   Into this disaster in the making walks Rambo's former commanding officer, Col. Sam Trautman, who offers the chief a simple piece of advice - "defuse the situation ... defuse Rambo."  Trautman goes on to suggest that instead of instigating Rambo by bringing in the National Guard, helicopters and escalating the issue, the Chief should pull back, take down his dragnet and "allow" Rambo to escape.  Once done, a more low key search could be done, likely resulting in Rambo's arrest in the near future, but without any additional loss of life.   Naturally, the Chief ignores the advice, a mini-war takes place and much destruction ensues (although Rambo does ultimately turn himself in).

I was thinking about the idea of deescalation in relation to Occupy Wall Street.  The movement itself ignited when the New York Police Department escalated tension and got physical with protesters. Similar incidents have now occurred in other cities where Occupy protesters have congregated.  I would encourage the police and respective local governments where Occupy protests are taking place to take Col. Trautman's advice - defuse the situation with Occupy Wall Street - grant permits for them to stay in public places, allow peaceable assembly and marches, and never, ever break out the pepper spray.  

This strategy would not only be beneficial in allowing protesters to express their grievances, it would actually go a long way toward advancing their agenda and getting them out of public spaces and into the actual work of voter registration, mobilization and message formation that will be necessary to convert their protest into action at the ballot box.  Because the half-life of any story, from stories of worldwide importance like Bin Laden's assassination or the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster to national stories like the Giffords shooting and coverage of the flavor of the month in the GOP primary, is quite short, the reality of Occupy Wall Street is that at some point, probably not too long after the first frost, if not sooner, the mainstream media will move on to other news.  All the more reason for the police to defuse the situation - if they simply wait it out, with temperatures dropping outside and the oxygen of media coverage taken away, Occupy protests are likely to shrink in size and intensity.  

Transitioning the OWS movement from "occupy" to "mobilize" would be in its interest too.  The bumper sticker label already exists - "We are the 99%" - something that Democrats constantly fail at and Republicans seem to have a Ph.D in, but the key question is what is done with all of that energy and vigor. No protest movement has any value if it fails to effectuate social change and the only way to do that is at the ballot box in November 2012, because no amount of public uprising, marching or media coverage is going to pry loose meaningful reform while Republicans run the House of Representatives and can filibuster in the U.S. Senate.  

So how is this done?  First, an actual policy agenda needs to be articulated.  While OWS is "little d" democratic through its general assembly, some concrete positions need to be staked out around which supporters can not only rally but generate broader support in the population.  Being part of the 99 percent does no good if most of that 99 percent remains apathetic and indifferent to policy concerns that affect them or think that there is nothing they can do to change their situation.  OWS should advocate issues like mortgage write downs, modifications to bankruptcy law, student loan forgiveness, more aggressive securities fraud investigation, job training, unemployment insurance extensions and tax increases on the wealthy as part of a progressive agenda that candidates for office at both the federal and state level can get behind.  

Second, this agenda needs to be converted into action - lobbying of legislators and regulators who control the levers of power, pushing candidates for office to support an agenda that focuses on, as Al Gore said, the people and not the powerful, and direct action - voter registration, donating and volunteering with campaigns that support these policies and aggressively pushing clear message points that debunk false narratives.  One of the major achievements of the Republican Party in the modern era is getting people to vote against their economic interest.  They have achieved this through relentless messaging that has gone unchallenged for too long.  This messaging is reinforced through hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying that ensures the interests of the powerful are protected.  In order to combat this, OWS and its supporters need to adopt the same messaging tactics that are explicable to the majority of Americans who, when polled, support progressive policies (social safety net, affordable education, higher taxes on the wealthy, etc ..) but are not engaged in the process and/or are not part of the prevailing media narrative, which generally favors the loudest, though not always most popular, voices.  

Third, OWS needs to be prepared for the long war.  Even if progressive candidates for office prevail in 2012, President Obama is re-elected and the Democrats control Congress, one need only look to 2008 to see even in that scenario, corporations successfully ambushed Democrats at many turns to dilute, and in some cases, destroy, attempts at greater oversight, regulation and prosecution.  This is the trench warfare of modern politics that needs to be done if any change is going to come. Republicans understand that the more skirmishes you engage in, the more likely you are to get your agenda advanced.  One need only look at issues as varied as abortion restrictions and voter ID laws to see that Republicans go back to these issues again and again, not deterred when they experience setbacks or losses, until finally, they break through. These battles take place in state capitols and backwater agencies, in the halls of Congress and the Federal Register, they require constant attention and diligence, reinforcement and support.  It should also encourage progressives to *run* for office. The number of neophyte politicians elected in 2010 by the right made clear that radically changing the make up of the political system is possible with a highly mobilized core of support around a narrow set of issues.

Electing the right candidates not only amplifies the power of these ideas, it extends into other areas - judicial appointments and administrative agency appointments (who control rule making).  Seeding federal and state courts with judges has helped Republicans get corporations defined as "people" and essentially shut down the awarding of significant punitive damages in state courts throughout the country.  These are no small policy feats but it should also be remembered (although it's been some time) that it was our federal court system that confirmed concepts we now take for granted like "one person, one vote" and the destruction of Jim Crow laws. Republicans have long recognized the utility of the appointment process both in its implementation when they are in power and in blocking it when they are out of power.  It is no coincidence that President Obama has had the U.S. Senate approve the fewest number of federal judges in modern history.  

OWS has shined a light on social inequality and captured the media's attention.  The key to its long-term success will be in its ability to transform the energy and support it has garnered into direct action.  Simply protesting on the Upper West Side will not get it done.  Giving speeches in the public square will not get it done.  Appearing on Countdown with Keith Olbermann will not get it done.  What is needed is a commitment to a core set of issues that its supporters then zealously and tirelessly work to achieve not just in Campaign 2012, but each and every election that takes place in the future.  Get to work.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree with you more - but that's exactly the problem. The people hanging out in that park don't want to have to actually work to effect change. They just want to complain and be "heard" (personally, I blame it on the rise of social media and the self-importance to which it has contributed), which is exactly what the 1% wants. Because it validates their position that they deserve their wealth because they worked harder for it than everybody else, never mind the reality of opportunities.

    Also to everyone that likes to blame The Corporation - you do have the power to effect change. Try voting with your dollars. But the fact is the 99% are just as greedy in our own way and nobody wants to give up our comforatble consumption habits. Guess what? You are making that corporate greed possible.