Occupy Wall Street: Eyes on the prize

Protesters need to build on the momentum they have gained and maintain a vital voice in the political system.

Demonstrators associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement protest in Times Square,New York City, USA [EPA]

In the days of the civil rights movement, there was a phrase that became a song and then a popular documentary series:

“Keep Your Eyes On The Prize.”

The idea was simple: Keep focus, don’t be distracted, don’t dissipate your energies.

The Occupy Movement that is spreading like a prairie fire worldwide is attracting critics who want it to take on every issue on every agenda: healthcare, campaign financial reform, environmental concerns and the like.

All are important and all are, on some level, interconnected – but when you try to do everything, you can easily end up doing nothing. Instead of sending out a clear message, you diffuse it, losing clarity and confusing the public.

Lacking an agenda

Occupy Wall Street has been criticised for not having a programme or a blueprint for change. Yet, that perceived weakness might be its greatest strength.

When you enunciate a complicated charter, you lose supporters and give others issues to disagree on. You end up having your own supporters debating the fine points of each issue and risk becoming factionalised.

Occupy Wall Street has spoken out clearly against economic inequality – rule by the one per cent over the 99 per cent. It has protested the banks and the billionaires and millionaires that dominate the economy. The slogans are simple and quite understandable.

And that’s precisely why so many have rallied behind it, and why it inspired copycat actions and acts of solidarity in as many as 1,000 cities. I can’t think of another time in history when a relatively small group of people managed to touch a global nerve so quickly.

Occupy Wall Street was not even 30 days old when a global day of action showed how widely their message was resonating.

At the same time, police abuse of the demonstrators has both won sympathy for the protests and galvanised marches in protest. If the police become the issue, there could be an escalation of tension and less of a focus on Wall Street and the economy.

New York’s police know that, and have the capacity to deploy agents provocateur to exacerbate confrontations. They are already using state-of-the-art surveillance trucks to monitor the protest around the clock, a potentially dangerous intelligence operation that could lead to targeted crackdowns of people they consider “key troublemakers”. The CIA has a reportedly close working relationship with the NYPD.

This 24-hour-a-day spying by special units is questionable from a constitutional point of view, but will continue unless and until a court stops it.

Recent surveys in New York show support of the protest by a 3-1 margin among residents. Even more respondents say demonstrators have a right to protest and that they don’t support heavy-handed police tactics. A national poll showed more support for Occupy Wall Street than the right-wing Tea Party.

Their own internet stream, websites, YouTube videos, tweets and messages were initially targeted at their own activists, but others started paying attention when the mainstream media machine worldwide started tuning in and taking the movement seriously.

That in turn has had an impact on the national and international conversation. Suddenly, issues that had been ignored or downplayed were making news, and not just in the business press – soon, labour unions and civic groups started checking it out and endorsing it.

Missing a leader

There was momentum of a kind that makes other social movements jealous. Perhaps it was the absence of leaders and conventional protests. Perhaps it was the building of a community open to participation by all.

Something was working, and working well.

Some of the activists feel that their key challenge now is to build their movement as widely and deeply as possible, and not posture as a lobbying force with a laundry list of demands they can’t promote effectively.

Their movement orientation seems to drive politicians and media pundits crazy.

On Wall Street, insiders dismiss the protest as “unsophisticated” as if all their purportedly “sophisticated” strategies are working to promote economic recovery or create jobs. They are not.

That’s why some of the Occupy activists think it would be a mistake now to ask a dysfunctional and broken system for anything. They don’t think it is capable of redressing grievances that raise structural issues beyond the power of politicians to fix.

They also think that asking the system for anything validates the system.

At the same time, there are activists who want to see an organisation emerge. There has been talk of a national convention in 2012 to bring together all the local occupy groups. This seems to be at the talking stage, not the organising phase.

The Democrats don’t have a consistent stance towards the activists – who are far more anarchistic and anti-system than they are. The Obama campaign is spending a lot of money to organise supporters, but many in the movement fear co-option. They are unlikely to take donations from political parties or well known political party funders. Decision on issues such as this are made by a participatory General Assembly that functions in a transparent and consensus-based manner.

The Move On organisation that backed Obama in 2008 and had raised millions for Democratic candidates was accused by some of trying to take over the movement. They just issued a statement denying that intent, and say they want to be supportive, but not trying to speak for the grassroots-based activists.

The Occupy Movement is raising money, a $300,000 figure was cited last week, but their coffers are swelling thanks to donations of money and in kind contributions. The question now is how that money will be spent.

So far, there are no paid staff, only dedicated volunteers.

The weather in New York is getting colder. The authorities hope that the coming of winter-like conditions will drive them out of the park. The activists respond by getting better sleeping bags and seeking nearby places to stay.

The conditions have never been easy. The park they have occupied is all granite, with no grass or toilet facilities. The city does not allow tents or structures. The mayor still may be bent on shutting the encampment down.

So far, Occupy Wall Street has survived everything that authorities have thrown at them, but it’s hard to predict what incidents might occur, or be instigated, to turn public opinion against them. That danger is real.

News Dissector Danny Schechter is a blogger (Newsdissector.com,) author and filmmaker. His latest DVD is Plunder the Crime of Our Time. (Plunderthecrimeofourtime.com.) He also hosts News Dissector Radio on ProgressiveRadioNetwork.com. Comments to Dissector@mediachannel.org

Follow Danny Schechter on Twitter: @dissectorevents

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.