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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Demand for the Occupy Movement
distributed 10/21/11 - ©2011

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement has blossomed. About a month ago, the few folk who gathered in a New York City plaza attracted very little attention. By last weekend, there were rallies in more than 900 cities around the world. There can be no doubt that this protest is resonating with lots of people.

A persistent criticism of the Occupy movement says that it is not being clear about its demands. Depending on how "demands" is interpreted, that criticism either raises a very valid concern, or it completely misses the mark. Strategic questions that I have been raising for churches over the last three years can be helpful in sorting out what sort of demands are necessary and appropriate, and which would be likely to kill the movement.

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Occupy Wall Street describes itself as "a leaderless resistance movement" made up of a wide variety of people. "The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%."

Slate Magazine offers a vivid description of what the movement has accomplished in just a few weeks:

Occupy Wall Street has already won, perhaps not the victory most of its participants want, but a momentous victory nonetheless. It has already altered our political debate, changed the agenda, shifted the discussion in newspapers, on cable TV, and even around the water cooler. And that is wonderful.

Suddenly, the issues of equity, fairness, justice, income distribution, and accountability for the economic cataclysm -- issues all but ignored for a generation -- are front and center. We have moved beyond the one-dimensional conversation about how much and where to cut the deficit. Questions more central to the social fabric of our nation have returned to the heart of the political debate.

But columnist Leonard Pitts says that "there is as yet little evidence of its ability to seize political power and use it to execute the movement's agenda." He lifts a concern that the Occupy movement may be just a "primal scream" which is attracting attention but not motivating change.

As this leaderless movement grows and develops, it does need to figure out what sort of demands to make.

As regular readers of these Notes know, Eco-Justice Ministries pays a lot of attention to the difference between activism and transformation. Large sections of our website describe how these two approaches to social change address fundamentally different problems, and require distinctive strategies.

The most common forms of activism -- in legislation and public policy, or in community organizing -- seek changes in and through the system. Issue activism says that our basic social values and the core institutions are generally acceptable and functional. They may need to be modified on some level -- with civil rights laws, or a carbon tax -- but the foundations of our society are good. Effective activism identifies a very specific issue, and makes closely targeted demands for change that will resolve the issue.

Transformation says that there is something fundamentally wrong with our values and institutions. The foundations need to be fixed before other changes will do any real good. A transformational perspective recognizes that there are so many interconnected problems that they can't be addressed individually. Solutions have to be found at a deeper level. As one sign at an Occupy event proclaimed, "America isn't broke, it's broken."

If members of a community see the need for deep transformation, then the specific sort of demands that are the core strategy of issue activism will look superficial. Detailed policy recommendations may be a distraction from the movement's real goals, providing tweaks to the system instead of fundamentally changing the system.

Some of those critiquing the Occupy movement are saying that the protesters are not offering a clear and detailed policy agenda. They want this resistance movement to act like issue activists. They think that there needs to be more attention on proposals for a transaction tax on every stock trade, for example. But if the movement places its primary focus on that sort of issue activism, it will lose its central message and its passion will evaporate.

A much more dramatic sort of demand was suggested in the initial invitation that started Occupy Wall Street. In mid-July, Adbusters Magazine called on "redeemers, rebels and radicals" to rise up "against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America".

Adbusters was looking for a popular movement along the lines of the Arab Spring, and they knew that such a movement needs clarity of purpose: "the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum -- that Mubarak must go -- over and over again until they won. Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated demand?"

A real popular movement needs to define its own agenda, but Adbusters highlighted one possibility. "The most exciting candidate that we've heard so far is one that gets at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy: we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington. It's time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY."

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The Occupy movement has captured our attention. It has broken open a dramatically new area for our public conversation, and it has clearly identified the need for deep changes in our national and global society. The 99% are claiming their rights and their voice in a fresh and compelling way.

The movement has attracted people concerned about a multitude of issues -- economic, political, environmental, criminal justice, and many more. These are all manifestations and symptoms of the profound flaws that the movement has named. The laundry list of issues is important, but it will not sustain a revolution.

The movement does need to clarify its demands, and in doing so it needs to make sure that the agenda is focused on changes that are sufficiently transformational. The demands must go to the heart of the disparities of wealth and power that have broken democracy and stolen the hope of far too many people.

If the Occupy movement settles for the policy demands that are the hallmark of issue activism, the movement will fail. It needs to find a demand that encompasses most of the issues, but also calls for a single, transformative action that will initiate profound change.

What do you propose as an appropriate demand? And what will you do to get that demand into the public debate?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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