Occupy Wall Street is a “leaderless” movement that has spread across America. It’s a mixed group with legitimate grievances (why so many bail outs?) and nonsensical ones (“why aren’t we protecting Gia as a metaphor?”).
Yesterday, I wandered down to Liberty Park in New York City to talk to some of the protesters and see the movement first hand.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. The sectioned off protest area ringed with barricades and cops is home to a mass of people, their sleeping gear, and a make-shift kitchen. It wasn’t the Mandarin Oriental.
Protesters who weren’t resting on their sleeping bags were proudly standing around the park with signs decrying corporate greed. They posed for cameras that belonged to journalists and interested tourists.
But some of the signs didn’t fit in with the rest. One man held up a sign that congratulated President Obama and his accomplishments.
A younger protester approached him and asked: “Why did you come here with that sign?”
They started arguing, but it was a public, political, and civil debate between two generations, two races, and two different sexes.
This was an episode I witnessed repeatedly in Liberty Square Park. Protesters were spending most of their time talking amongst themselves trying to decide what they could agree on and what made them all mad.
I listened in on a few TV interviews. Reporters were asking the protesters questions about what they were fighting for. Some of the protesters were well spoken, asked for moderate reforms, and wanted to find ways to promote dialogue.
Other protesters, when asked the same set of questions, chose to rant and arm wave. One young man asked, “Can I give a shout out to my band?”
The reporter said no.
The movement is held together by General Assemblies or, in layman’s terms, meetings. Everyday two meetings are held on the east end of the park. They are informal affairs and anyone can speak. However, the problem is amplification since the protesters aren’t allowed microphones. A speaker is forced to say a sentence and the audience has to scream it back in unison. It’s a call and response system that helps everyone in the crowd here what’s being said.
It’s sloppy, but it works.
I was there for the first meeting of the day. Different people took center stage and aired their political beliefs and everyone echoed them. It was a good way of digesting different opinions, but when someone said something that wasn’t appreciated it wasn’t echoed.
No unified message emerged from the meeting I attended. No direction was proposed. There was no real vision. Just a bunch of fragmented ideas and a lot of complaints.
Currently, Occupy Wall Street has over 500,000 online supporters. They’ve raised over 40,000 dollars and the movement has even spread across the Atlantic into Ireland.
It’s amazing that it has done so well without a consistent narrative, without a leader, and without a clear set of demands.
Movements, leaders, and companies don’t have to rely on clear visions. They don’t always need goals. They don’t even need targets. But after a while they become crucial. How can Occupy Wall Street begin to get things done when they don’t know what it is they want done?
The lack of a vision hasn’t hurt Occupy Wall Street yet, but eventually it will create problems. It’s hard to imagine the group of protesters that I saw the other day unified under one message.
Pic credit: BlaiseOne