Thursday, December 15, 2011

Learning from Our Parents’ Protests: Occupation Unidentified

One consistent critique of the Occupy protests has been their lack of leadership.  Michael Moore called it a “leaderless movement” during his visit to the Denver protests last week.  What Moore seems to admire about the movement is precisely what has been a sore spot for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.  As concerns about sanitation, health, and safety in Occupy protest sites grow, particularly as winter approaches, it is easy to understand the Mayor’s frustration.  It is considerably more difficult to negotiate arrangements for sanitation, and health and safety with a leaderless group. 

Earlier this week Denver Occupy acquiesced to the Mayor’s insistence that some kind of leadership be selected for the group.  Inspired by the Citizens United ruling treating corporations as people, the Denver protestors elected a well-known fixture at the protest in a landslide, Shelby.  Charismatic and photogenic, Shelby has been receiving a lot of attention, which she seems to be heartily enjoying.  It should probably be mentioned that Shelby is a three year-old Border Collie mix.  No word from the Mayor’s office on how this new diplomatic relationship is progressing, though I suspect there are concerns about the Mayor bribing the young and impressionable Shelby with cookies, ear rubs and walkies. 

Perhaps a tongue and cheek selection of a leader is the only kind possible with the Occupy protests.  The protests consist of a demographically diverse group and it seems that each protestor is there for a different reason.  This lack of focus has been fodder for much criticism and humor at the expense of the movement.  To outsiders at least it seems the only thing that ties this protest together is outrage.  Some Occupy protests have developed elaborate ways of attempting consensus (see Kristine Baumstark’s October 17, 2011 post in this blog; A similar system is in use at the Denver protest), which may help protestors feel like they are being heard, but are unwieldy and ill-adapted to timely or “big picture” decisions.  The lack of national leadership makes changes in national government policy virtually impossible.  Without leadership to articulate a coherent purpose there is no way to negotiate with or appease this crowd.

A lack of leadership, coupled with (or caused by) unfocused outrage, makes it difficult to envision the Occupy movement doing more than fizzling out when the cold hits.  Apart from hoping its press attention will spur broader public engagement, it is difficult to see just how the movement hopes to affect change.  This is not to criticize the protestors’ ideals (goodness knows, there are a number of subjects of outrage represented that I agree with), but generalized outrage does not appeal to me for the same reason that I’ve never felt the urge to scream at an ocean.  Sure you can do it, but why?  

Previous civil rights movements’ protests were successful in affecting change because they were focused.  When disability advocates in the 1960s and 70s held sit in protests there was little confusion as to why they were there – they were outraged, but with a purpose.  Rather than protesting for disability rights generally they would have a sit in at the regional transportation authority protesting for public transportation accessibility or lobby for what would become the Americans With Disabilities Act. 

The point is this: The jokes about the Occupy movement are getting tired, illnesses and injuries among the protestors are increasing, and it’s getting cold outside.  It is time for the protestors to articulate a vision for their movement or find leaders who can do it for them.  Failing to do so gives the people in power a pass to ignore the popular movement as a curio of flashes and bangs that disappear in the blink of an eye and are forgotten almost as quickly.   

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