By Ron Daniels
Propelled by social media and extensive coverage by mainstream press, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has undoubtedly captured the attention of the nation and the world. Indeed, the movement has gone “global” as solidarity demonstrations and protests have sprung up in cities around the world. The Zuccotti Park site in New York remains the critical epicenter of the movement with hundreds of demonstrators, apparently determined to stay the course until something of significance happens. In an on-location interview on Rev. Al Sharpton’s nationally syndicated radio talk show, I remarked that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a movement in search of a coherent message and concrete goals.
There has been much debate (including among the ranks of the leaderless protesters) about whether a message and action agenda is essential. Some believe that the movement and “process” in and of itself are sufficient to make the “point.” Numerous celebrities have shown up at Zuccotti Park to lend their support, grab some media attention or give advice. Perhaps, Susan Sarandon captured a critical concern when she commented: “You’re at the tipping point. You have the people’s attention. Now you need to build on that. But… your weakness is that there are so many issues. You’re gonna be easy to be dismissed if you don’t concentrate on a single cause.”
Herein lies the critical dilemma for OWS: will it continue to be a movement with a diffuse multiplicity of messages under the overarching theme “we are the 99 percent,” or will it develop an action agenda with goals that people can mobilize/organize around to produce change? OWS has absolutely struck a chord with millions of Americans who are fed-up with the unabashed greed, reckless behavior and unrepentant attitude of the 1 percent as symbolized by Wall Street. Mass popular education and consciousness-raising are crucial first steps in sparking a movement for change. As Susan Sarandon aptly put it, OWS has gotten the attention of large numbers of Americans, and this consciousness-raising process needs to continue. The question is what’s next?
Whether we on the left agree with them or not, the Tea Party Patriots have done a remarkable job of moving from protest to policy. The Tea Party Express Caravans and protest demonstrations, railing against The Toxic Assets Recovery Program (TARP) and “Obama-care,” captured media attention and helped to grow the movement. But they also translated their anger/outrage into a reduce government, reduce spending, reduce the debt and deficit, reduce taxes and reduce regulation message and agenda. Then they rolled up their sleeves and elected people to office at various levels, including Congress of the United States, to fight for policies to bring about the “change” they believe in. The Tea Party movement has an “inside/outside” strategy and presence.
Some with the “Occupy” movement contend that the “inside” component of this approach dilutes or compromises the strategic goal of changing the system. It’s the proverbial question/issue of how do you change a system by participating in that system. I’m not wed to an inside strategy; however, to achieve a change in the system without an inside dimension, the forces at the gate must not only be clear about what they oppose but have an idea of what they want to create or replace the current system with . In addition, the forces at the gate must be massive and committed to utilizing mass demonstrations, protests, civil disobedience, disruption, economic sanctions, general strikes – the forces on the outside must be so strong that whoever controls the centers of power and influence must yield and submit to the demand for system change. I’m not convinced that Occupy Wall Street can muster sufficient power to achieve system change. What is more plausible is to advance an agenda of reforms which serve as a kind of interim step toward more transformative change if the movement can be sustained.
As a progressive activist, I have long since resolved the inside versus outside question/issue. It’s a false dichotomy. While mass movements should always be the priority in the quest for social justice and social change, functioning in and impacting the system to advance reforms or systems change should always be on the table as an option. It’s not either, or, but both! Indeed, it is not unusual for mass movements to have an electoral political strategy or for electoral political parties to emerge from movements, e.g., the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.
The Occupy movement has emerged at one of the most critical moments in the history of the struggle to define “a more perfect union.” It not only has the potential to blunt the onslaught of the reactionaries on the right in terms of the attack on the culture of rights won by social movements over generations, it can potentially educate and mobilize millions of Americans to advance a progressive agenda. In my judgment, this will require identifying a basic set of key issues and fighting on the outside and inside to achieve victories. With a crucial presidential election in 2012, the Occupy movement will also have to decide how to relate to or impact the outcome in a manner that will best promote the issues/agenda it seeks to advance.
Adopting an outside/inside strategy to promote its aims may prove difficult for some in the Occupy movement to embrace, thereby leading to a rejection of this approach within the General Assembly process where substantial consensus is the rule. My fear is that absent a clear agenda and strategy for achieving it, the anger, outrage and frustration tapped by Occupy Wall Street will soon dissipate, leaving the 99 percent to its own devices to find ways of confronting the 1 percent in terms of achieving meaningful change. Such an amorphous, unorganized approach is not likely to turn back the tide of the forces on the right that intentionally or unintentionally promote and protect the interest of the 1 percent. It would be a real tragedy to miss the opportunities presented by this moment. Let us hope a response on the direction of the Occupy Wall Street movement will be forthcoming soon!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected]