Universal Translator

Sunday, October 2, 2011

OWS: The First Official Statement

Well, the Occupy Wall Street protesters released their First Official Statement yesterday.

Before I go any further, let me just say that I am a big supporter of the protest.  If the protesters are doing nothing else, they are at least yelling at the correct villains – the big banks and the financial industry that, as a whole, are most responsible for ushering in the Age of Agony. 

And the OWS protesters are to be congratulated for realizing that in order to draw attention to a cause, to a protest, it is insufficient these days to simply organize a large march/rally and then go home.  That is a one-day event, and is quickly forgotten in the 24/7 news cycle in which we now live.  Occupy Wall Street is forcing the rest of the nation – gradually and unwillingly -- to pay attention to them because they do not intend to make a little noise and then go away, congratulating themselves on “having been heard.”  They plan to stay and be a thorn in the side of those who want the country’s financial elite to continue “business as usual.”

Unfortunately, upon review of OWS’s First Official Statement – and it pains me to say this – I am, ah . . . underwhelmed.  Your mileage, of course, may vary.

I’ve produced a copy of the Statement below the fold, and then a brief explication of what I find problematic about the Statement.  I finish with an example of the kind of announcement for which I had been hoping and why I think that type of announcement would have better served OWS’s purposes.

Here is the text of the First Official Statement:

Declaration of the Occupation of New York City

As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press. They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.
They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.* 
To the people of the world,
We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.
Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.
To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.
Join us and make your voices heard!
*These grievances are not all-inclusive.

* * *
Now let me tell you about the problems I have with that Statement.

I understand that Occupy Wall Street has always intended for its protest to be a “completely horizontal” organization – that is, no hierarchy, no top-down organization, just an example of direct democracy in action.  But I think this Statement illustrates some of the drawbacks that come with such organization.  Specifically, it seems to me that – in an effort to encompass all points of view and, especially, to include all of its participants’ common grievances – OWS is diluting what could be a powerful message.

The Committee Prose

This dilution is apparent from the very first sentence:  “As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together.”  I read that and my first thoughts were:  Isn’t what brought you together a feeling of mass injustice?  Didn’t you just say that in the first clause of the same sentence?

This has the turgid feel of committee prose, language cobbled together by compromise.  The same idea could be expressed more powerfully and more directly by simplifying it and by losing the word “feeling.”  This is supposed to be a persuasive document, and you don’t persuade people by telling them what you feel or what you think . . . you persuade people by speaking in short, declarative sentences that tell them what is:  “We gather together in solidarity to protest a mass injustice.”  No ifs, ands, or buts, you just flat out declare that a mass injustice has been perpetrated and that you are pissed off about it.

And I’d lose the second sentence in its entirety.  Nobody paying attention to OWS is hoping that the protesters are their “allies.”  Whether OWS is on their side or not isn’t what anybody who’s paying attention wants to hear.  What they want to hear is why OWS has been camped out on Wall Street for more than 2 weeks.

Which brings me to the second paragraph.  And it’s not that I disagree with any of the statements contained therein, it’s just that . . . well, strip away the committee prose and it sounds like a run-of-the-mill liberal complaint:  The system depends on the people and can be corrupted and it’s up to the people to fight corruption and the corporations are corrupting it so the people have to fight the corporations.  Again, nothing here tells disinterested parties who the protesters are, what the protesters are specifically upset over, or why the audience should care.  I think OWS would have been better off just lifting almost in its entirety the statement put out earlier by We Are the 99% explaining who “the 99%” are. 

The List of Grievances

But it’s the list of grievances that I think presents the biggest problem.  OWS ties 23 separate grievances together with the allegation they all have been committed by “corporations,” and it does indeed appear from their Statement that what OWS is really protesting are “corporate forces of the world” that have wronged people.

But I have to confess that I don’t really follow this.  If OWS is upset about “corporate forces,” why aren’t they protesting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s headquarters in Washington?  What the hell is OWS doing on Wall Street?  I gave the protesters credit earlier for “at least yelling at the correct villains – the big banks and the financial industry,” but it appears from their Statement that they are yelling at the financial industry for things somebody else is doing.

According to their Statement, OWS gathered in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district to complain about:  animal testing, poor food safety, onerous student loans, unscrupulous health insurance practices, oil dependency, the selling of consumer information, a failure to recall faulty products, misusing corporate media, the death penalty, colonialism, torture of prisoners, the creation of weapons of mass destruction, and a host of other things.  But I tend to think the audience that OWS needs to reach is going to read this list and think:  So they’re picketing investment banks because they’re upset about animal testing, colonialism, and the death penalty.  Huh.  And then ignore them and turn back to the 24-hour “Hee-Haw” Channel.

I think it would have been more effective to pick out only those few listed grievances most applicable to the banks, present those grievances as reasons the economy no longer works for 99% of us, and then sum up those grievances with an over-the-top (it is a protest) conclusory statement that clearly distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys.

Ideally it would be short, simple, and just repetitive enough for a casual listener to get the point.  It would explain what OWS is doing on Wall Street, give the audience a specific villain to hate, and explain in simple, easy-to-understand language why that villain deserves to be hated.

In short, I’d have preferred the First Official Statement to read something more like the following:

We gather together in solidarity to protest a mass injustice. 
We are the 99 percent for whom the American economy does not work.  We are getting kicked out of our homes.  We are forced to choose between groceries and rent.  We are denied quality medical care.  We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all.  We are getting nothing while the richest 1 percent in our country gets everything.  We are the 99 percent and we have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
  • The bankers on Wall Street have forged documents and falsified affidavits, to take our homes from us; 
  • The bankers on Wall Street have taken trillions of dollars from us, without conditions, strings or consequences, and have used that money to pay themselves billions of dollars in bonuses;
  • The bankers on Wall Street have insisted on economic policies that benefit them and only them, that drain America’s wealth, weaken our nation, and impoverish the rest of us; 
  • The bankers on Wall Street are killing America. 
We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge all of you to assert your power.
Exercise your right to peaceably assemble, occupy public space, and address the problems we all now face.
To all communities that take direct democratic action, we offer you support, assistance, and all the resources at our disposal.
Join Us!  Make Your Voices Heard!

 * * *

For me, the statement above explains clearly and concisely what the problem is and why people are protesting, it explains to the vast majority of the American public why they also should be pissed off, it urges more people to get involved and – most importantly – it identifies a single villain.

The easiest way to sway people, to motivate people, is to direct them toward someone specific whom they can blame for their woes.  Rush Limbaugh and the Republican Back-Up Singers have been making millions of dollars a year, for years, because they learned that lesson a long time ago.  That is why they always have a stock character villain whom they call “the Liberal,” no matter what specific thing their audience is unhappy about.

And while it is true that there are a lot of issues all rational people should be pissed off about right now, I think it is hard to mobilize the apathetic by pointing to every single problem you can think of and then telling people it’s the fault of “corporations.”  That term is too inclusive, too vague, too generic and – Hey! – a lot of people who are upset right now do still have jobs, are grateful to have their jobs, and many of them work for corporations.  Telling these people to get mad at their bosses is not going to sway these people to support our cause.

But almost nobody whom OWS is trying to reach works for or gives a damn about the fat cat banksters.  Wanna rally the American people to protest what’s happening in America?  Fat cat banksters are the perfect target, and they have the added advantage of being the people at whom we should be angriest right now. 

Finally, and most importantly . . . by keeping the message focused tightly on a single villain it gives the American media the easy-to-explain storyline “hook” that they need to cover the protest.  If the media are going to pay any attention to Occupy Wall Street (and, until recently, that was a big “if”) the story can’t just be A buncha people are pissed off about a buncha stuff.  A story needs conflict to be viable, and the media have proved that they are only capable of thinking about conflict in binary terms:  right/left, liberal/conservative, republican/democrat, good/bad, etc., etc. (but, curiously, not correct/incorrect; that distinction no longer seems to exist for America's political media).

So Occupy Wall Street needs a single villain, one that almost nobody can be sympathetic toward, and one that can easily be put on the defensive with just a couple of questions from a few blown-dry bobble-heads:  Didn’t the banks screw up the economy?  Didn’t they take trillions of taxpayer dollars and pay out billions in bonuses?  Don’t a lot of the banksters pay lower tax rates than many middleclass Americans? And on and on and on.  The banksters make a perfect – and perfectly justified – target.  Put ‘em on the defensive, make ‘em squirm for the cameras.

But again and as always . . . your mileage may vary.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I had the same reaction. The more verbose a statement the less impact.