You know that Occupy Wall Street and its local, national and international progeny have reached a level of success when everyone is offering advice. Unfortunately, the most commonly offered view – that activists must get specific about their demands – is entirely wrong.
This movement is not akin to a neighborhood group trying to get a politician to clean up a park or repair a school. Nor is this a case where putting the right kind of pressure on a decision-maker can produce a quick victory. Rather, this is a systemic challenge that will be slowed by activists focusing on the “inside baseball” of Federal Reserve policies and banking regulations.
The elite has no intention of complying with specific “demands, ” and pundits will then use their lack of response to declare the movement’s failure. Instead, activists should continue building the broad support necessary to sustain a cultural shift toward redistributing the nation’s wealth. As the movement grows, actions to reduce economic injustice will follow.
The Occupy Movement is Unique
As Occupy Wall Street tries to think of new ways to build momentum, a Demands Working Group has been formed. The New York Times quotes activists fearing that the movement will become “a joke,” without specific demands – an attitude that is understandable both for those with community organizing training and activists who have seen a lack of focus kill once promising campaigns.
But the Occupy movement is different from traditional campaigns. It is not about getting a President to end a war, or convincing Congress to grant a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
It is not even akin to past corporate campaigns targeting such powerful forces as Gallo Wine, J.P. Stevens, and Nike. And even the Seattle protests and other anti-globalization activism had targets capable of responding to specific demands.
The Occupy movement is unique. Its target is an elite whose composition is not fixed, identity not well known, has neither formally meeting nor organized structure, and is not for all practical purposes subject to the democratic process.
That’s why many of the standard organizing rules do not apply. And for those still convinced that making unwinnable specific demands gives the movement credibility, ask yourself: did Obama’s promotion of even relatively mild specific measures for reining in Wall Street increase or decrease his public credibility and power?
We all know the answer.
Expanding the Base
The biggest challenge facing the Occupy movement is not creating demands; rather, it’s expanding its base.
In this area, the lessons of community organizing are vital.
The late Fred Ross, Sr., who trained Cesar Chavez to become a community organizer and remained the UFW’s mentor, used to say, “usually those who can spare a little time for the cause are actually ready to give it all if only someone would ask them.”
Unfortunately, many activist campaigns do not ask. Failing to constantly recruit new supporters causes volunteer bases to shrink and important struggles to decline.
Occupy activists have millions of frustrated Americans to draw from in building a larger movement. The question is whether resources will be found to hire full-time organizers to expand the movement’s base, or whether those now involved will not prioritize growth, preferring, as some activists do, to keep their group small enough to facilitate informal structures of decision-making.
Due to the economy, there is no shortage of skilled community organizers. So putting them to work not only builds a movement, but also creates jobs.
If the many groups that have jumped on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon are truly committed to the long process of building a broader movement for redistributing wealth in the United States, then they now should be hiring organizers for this very goal. Some are committed to electoral organizing in 2012, and are unlikely to change course. This means that we will soon learn which groups got involved with Occupy because they saw it as a rare opportunity to achieve real change, and which joined because there was nothing much else going on and that was where the cameras were pointed.
Do activists have the patience for movement building in an age of one-clicks and ever updated news? Through the Occupy movement, we will soon find out.
Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.