What Should Occupy Wall Street Do Next?
Responding to the news that, post-OWS, media mentions of income inequality have skyrocketed by nearly 500%, Steve Kornacki says the Occupiers have already won. But victory comes with its own drawbacks:
Before the past few months, the national political dialogue seemed dominated by spending cuts and deficit reduction — not job creation, not tax fairness, and not the general shrinking of the middle class. OWS is not the only major development that has brought these issues to the fore — President Obama’s push for jobs legislation and a millionaires’ surtax has certainly played a major role, Elizabeth Warren’s viral video didn’t hurt — but the conversation does seem much different now than it did over the summer. This is an obvious victory for OWS…
The risk here is that lingering protests, with their inevitable clashes with police and civic leaders, will give the right an easy way to distract from the discussion of these issues in the months ahead. Then again, it’s also possible that the national conversation will regress without the daily, physical reminder that the occupiers represent.
I’ve written about this before, but I’m quite sympathetic to Kornacki’s concerns, though I’m hesitant to engage in the somewhat pompous and even obtuse game of telling Occupiers — who have no leadership, central command, or fixed identity — what to do. Yet whether or not I’m writing into the void, I still think it’s worthwhile to remind people that the Occupy movement’s got to change, evolve, and grow if it hopes to outrun those looking to demonize it and cast it into a fixed, politicized, and mundane partisan role.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the establishment’s cry for demands (which the one percent want to hear primarily so they can say Yes/No and, soon thereafter, Shut Up and Go Away) has to be answered; but it wouldn’t hurt to extend the Occupy repertoire beyond occupation and amorphous calls for 99% solidarity.
Of course, everyone’s more than happy to share their thoughts on what Occupiers should do next — and the fact that the latter never asked the former for advice to begin with tends to be of little concern. But, hey, this is what happens when you start a conversation: people talk. And, it should be said, some people have better things to say than others.
I like Harold Pollack’s idea, for instance, that Occupiers should focus on rolling-back the recent national push by the Right to limit the franchise for those demographics that, coincidentally, happen to be most likely to vote for Democrats in 2012. Pollack does himself a disservice in framing the issue along Good-for-Democrats rhetorical lines, but his point is a good one nonetheless. If Occupiers care about returning agency to the disempowered masses, they should take voting seriously — even if they consider it inadequate, in and of itself, to fixing what ails modern democracy:
Occupy Wall Street organizers: I believe you should resonate with this issue. GOP officials are trying to disenfranchise people like you: college students with university IDs not gun permits, young people and minority urban residents who don’t drive, and so on.
Wherever you live, learn the voter registration and ID rules, and get to work registering people and ensuring that they have the proper ID cards and whatever to actually vote. Bring the drum sets. You may need a hard surface to fill out the proper forms.
There are a few reasons I think Occupiers would do well to take voter suppression seriously. For one, it’s the kind of issue that most Americans would be hard pressed to find either distasteful or difficult to understand. There’s a rich and noble history of young, idealistic, and perhaps radical Americans engaging in widespread, coordinated efforts to spread the franchise and strengthen the fundamental currency of democracy. Occupiers won’t need to concoct a byzantine or particularly clever message in order to convey why this is something they’re tackling and bringing to light.
Arguing that the burden of proof should be on those who wish to restrict rather than protect the right to vote is not quite as inoffensive to American mores as celebrating apple pie, but it’s close.
Secondly, getting knee-deep in the weeds to protect voting rights would be worthwhile for Occupiers because it would get them familiar with their local, state, and national voting laws — and, more importantly, in-touch with the communities that they desperately need to engage with in the broader movement: the poor, the young, the neglected, and the oppressed. Overwhelmingly, these are the types of people who will suffer from new voters restriction laws; and, not incidentally, these are also the types of people who suffer most under the current status quo.
Social movements cannot be waged on behalf of people. Rights are not given, they’re taken. And if the Occupy movement hopes to extend the sphere of their influence and activity beyond legitimate complaints about student debt and a meager job market — if there is a sincere interest in challenging a more fundamental inequality in the contemporary West — the truly disenfranchised cannot remain a romanticized abstraction. Working with people to ensure their most basic political right is appreciated could be a crucial means to broaden and deepen the movement.
A secondary benefit of this work that might eventually become its most important consequence would be the establishment of a network between Occupiers, their communities, and, crucially, each other. Prying control of America’s economic and political systems away from the one percent is not going to be achieved swiftly or easily, just as the concentration of wealth and political power wasn’t hoarded at the very top overnight.
It’ll be a project that may happen in fits and starts; and it’ll be a struggle that will require smaller battles and minor victories. It’s going to require an intellectual and activist infrastructure — not just like, but nevertheless analogous to, the one that arose on the right in the years and decades following the legendary Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964. Many of the people who met one another during that prolonged revolution within the Republican Party would continue to work together on countless projects in the years to come, eventually building a web of relation and support that would contribute greatly to a profound shift in American politics and society.
If the Occupy movement wants to leave a comparable mark upon the America of their time, if they want to ensure that the events of 2011 don’t become, in Slavoj Zizek’s words, “a kind of magic explosion that disappears,” they could do worse than getting started by saving the right to vote.