How Occupy Can Leverage Local Government

occupy la

KABC reporter Danielle Saar at Occupy LA's "Bank Transfer Day". (Photo: Ted Fisher)

One way of organizing in the Occupy movement might be to get cities to participate in developing democracy. What I mean is by setting up a system where they engage local residents better on important local political issues, including city council, school board, county commission, and statewide issues.

Our current media system is structured to downplay the importance of democracy, instead focussing on the business of America through advertising sales. The Internet and other technology now make it possible for the Occupy Movement to demand that government use technology to nurture and promote democracy through technology.

We are also experiencing a downsizing of journalism, which is the soulmate of democracy. John Nichols, the Nation magazine journalist, and Robert McChesney, a professor and medial specialist, wrote a very good book in 2010, The Death and Life of American Journalism, about the vast layoffs of American journalists and how Europeans countries have dealt with the problem.

Basically, European governments have created a voucher system where citizens can commit their personal vouchers to the newspaper of their choice. Europe’s newspapers are thriving and the system even has the conservative magazine, The Economist, singing its high praise.

On a local level, Occupy could demand that cities create a monthly issue project. They could demand that cities give several local journalists — no doubt seriously underpaid — a subsidy for writing about an issue once a month, some pressing issue facing the city council, school board, county supervisors or state government. The project might also include national issues.

The city government would purchase the permissible email addresses of local residents, which are available through political data vendors. The city could also buy robo call software to reach people on the other side of the digital divide. They could also print copies of an article on that month’s subject and hand them out to high school students, encouraging the students and their parents to read and discuss the issue.

Local cable stations could along with the journalists record a program about the issue, which could also be available through an audio-visual stream on the project’s web site. Local stations are almost always regional stations covering many cities and towns and not logistically capable of cover local issue in any serious depth. They do, however, do a good job of helping to move product. As a consequence, the vast majority of people who get their news through TV are usually uninformed about local issues and are on a democratically deficient information diet, so to speak.

Creating a project that would look at the shortcomings of media outlets which is based on moving products and not democracy would be a platform to engage people a lot better than what we do now.

Progressives should not fear having a balanced presentation of issues, giving conservatives equal time, because the problem isn’t our perspective on the issues but our media’s ability to divert peoples attention away from important issues, issues citizens should spend at least a little time focusing on. The project would help them focus.

Our political class is also complicit in this problem. I have never heard even the most progressive of elected officials entertain the idea of using technology to engage citizens better or even talk about local party building of their own party!

Initially, the Occupy movement could vote on a pressing current local issue and then bring the issue and the plan for a monthly issue project to the city council. The investment in a local Internet and robocall communications is a small fraction of what is spent on political advertising. Subsidizing a few journalist would in most cities be less than the salary of one of the city’s six-figure employees or police duty at one peaceful rally.

In some respects, democracy is very expensive but not very expensive at all if we harness the Internet technology we use every day. I live in a city with 80,000 people and estimate startup costs might be $50,000 a year, which would include purchasing permissible email addresses at 15 cents each, $2000 worth of robo call software, and subsidizing three journalists at $1000 a month each.

The journalists should also have a strong “Just Cause” provision in their contract to protect them from elected officials who might not like what they write. Over time the journalists positions could be elected.

The project would obviously be a work in progress, which is what the Founders of the country had in mind but which we have forgotten. The vaudeville nature of electoral campaigning and the horse race coverage by the media are a weak excuse for democracy. Media outlets would be more honest if they would mention the need to spend more money of political advertising when they reported poll figures.

craig williams“Of course Mr. Candidate could do better in the polls if he spent more on political ads on our station” would never be uttered by a TV journalist but it is the real reason why the media does polling in the first place. It tells product advertisers how many people are watching their programs and candidates how much more they should spend on political ads based on poll numbers.

There are many pressing issues facing us as communities and as a country. We might be better off creating a system to address those issue on a local level before addressing specific issues themselves, since the media’s delivery system of democracy favors the 1 percent and serves the 1 percent by diverting people’s attention from democracy and the pressing issues of our time.

Craig Williams


  1. Joe Weinstein says

    Craig offers some good points. Real democracy has to start at the local level and be well informed. But being well informed is only necessary, not sufficient.

    Here in Long Beach, over the past decade one dedicated journalist has given us an ever-better on-line outlet – – which now gives us first-class reporting on key local public affairs, in general far better than either old- or new-style newspapers. But, despite this wonderful development, we sure don’t have democracy.

    Just having media – whether by individuals or governments or parties – which more cleverly ‘engage’ and ‘reach out’ to citizens, and get citizens’ ‘input’, and listen to citizens’ yakking – all this does not cut it – it does not equate to democracy.

    The problem is that, no matter how ‘engaged’ and ‘reached out’ to and ‘informed’ by media, we ordinary citizens are still second-class. All are equal, but the politicians remain far more equal than the rest of us. Unlike them, we don’t have guaranteed POWER to make public policy decisions (much less the kind of decisions needed: well deliberated decisions, not merely at-whim voting to rubber-stamp or reject other folks’ decisions). We are forced to give up all this power to a handful of elected and appointed career officials – the political oligarchy: your mayor and city council and maybe a few others.

    Without some guarantee of deliberative decision POWER, most of us don’t have much motive to spend much time and effort on public affairs, no matter how vital they are to us – because the whim of the oligarchs can at any time trump whatever concerns we nurture and whatever proposals we carefully and painstakingly develop.

    For real democracy we must begin to insist on actual decision POWER for ordinary citizens in public decision-making – as was the case in ancient Athenian democracy. (The problem there was that only a minority could be citizens: but it was a far bigger minority than our political oligarchy of today.)

    A starting point in your city could be deliberative citizen review: every week, a new short-term citizen jury (of say 10-20 citizens), recruited at random from willing citizens, assembles to deliberate and review the decisions of the city council, with power to affirm or veto each decision. At a later stage, introduce also citizen agendizing, so that each week a new agendizing jury, after holding public hearings and discussing matters, submits proposals for required action by the city council. Finally, replace the career-politician city council itself by one or more weekly decision juries of ordinary citizens.

    The above outlines one possible course. There may be other good ones.

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