For weeks, supporters of the Occupy demonstrations have bristled at the criticism that the movement lacks focus or a clear message. Wrong, they say, the messages about unemployment, income inequality and disparities in access to the political system are loud and clear.
Fair enough, but it’s also fair to point out that protest movements that have been effective in the past have had one thing in common: They’ve generated pressure on specific people in positions of power to do something.
World War I veterans who pitched tents in Washington in 1932 had a clear demand for Congress—payment of bonuses they were promised.
Civil rights protestors in the 1960s demanded an end to racial discrimination in public accommodation. Bus companies and lunch counter owners and those who enforced their policies of segregation felt the heat.
In the 1960s and ’70s, mass demonstrations demanded an end to the Vietnam War, and while no single protest achieved the goal, it’s clear presidents Johnson and Nixon felt pressure.
These movements were populated with people who had many other concerns and agendas, but they built momentum for change around some simple, clearly understood demands.
Can you think of anyone in a position of power in America who feels besieged by the Occupy movement? The suits on Wall Street continue to go to work and do their deals, apparently undisturbed. Government regulators don’t feel like targets. Anybody in Congress, the White House or the Federal Reserve seem worried?
It seems to me that, sooner or later, the energy of the movement will dissipate if there isn’t a clear, achievable demand that makes somebody in the halls of power respond. The obvious choice to me would be legislation making the super-rich carry a fairer share of the federal tax burden.
With winter coming, I expect the demonstrations will get smaller. It would make sense to me if the leaders (a problematic term in this movement, I realize) spent some time in the cold-weather months building allies in Congress who will introduce and push tax legislation that the Occupy movement can provide a mass following for.
There’s a lot of anger in the land, and a potentially broad base of support for the Occupy movement. But if it is going to be something more than a tiny sect of the committed in six months, it will have to decide on a target and take aim.