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#OWS, The Other 98%, US Uncut & Rebuild the Dream: A Look at the Shoes That Didn't Drop

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, October 19 2011

Times Square, Occupy Wall Street rally, Saturday, October 15, 2011. Photo by Micah L. Sifry

Here's a question to ponder: Did Occupy Wall Street succeed simply because it was non-hierarchical in method, had smart framing in tune with public anger about the economy and Wall Street, and made really effective use of social media? If that was all it took to ignite a self-organizing movement for economic justice, then why didn't a very similar effort, called "The Other 98%," take off last year? Why didn't the US Uncut movement, a spin-off of an ongoing street protest movement in England, take off here this past winter? Why didn't Van Jones' new "Rebuild the Dream" movement, which was launched this summer with the backing of MoveOn, labor and the progressive netroots, take off?

Times Square, Occupy Wall Street rally, Saturday, October 15, 2011. Photo by Micah L. Sifry

The question of where Occupy Wall Street came from, in actual organizational terms, can be definitively answered by consulting a number of excellent write-ups that have appeared in recent days. No, not this October 18 Reuters article which imagines that it all started with a hashtag back in July. (Talk about a classic example of the "view from afar" approach to political reporting.) Far better, are these three articles, which I highly recommend:

  • Fast Company reporter Sean Captain's detailed account of the first six weeks of OWS's growth, starting with a "general assembly" in early August, where anti-Wall Street activists turned away from a top-down protest rally run by some left-sectarian group and, led by a young Greek woman named Georgia Sagri, sat down in a circle and began talking, using a modified consensus process, about how to act on the magazine Adbusters' original call to action. Captain's ongoing reporting, as noted earlier today by my colleague Nick Judd, is really first-rate.
  • Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll's look at the international activists who brought the experience of Spain's indignados and the "horizontal" mode of activism taking root around the world to early planning meetings of OWS. (More on that here, from TaketheSquare.net.)
  • "Small-a anarchist" David Graeber's in-depth personal account of what he calls, without irony, "The Strange Success of #OccupyWallStreet." He recounts in greater detail the importance of this horizontal vs vertical style of organizing, as well as its roots in many previous political movements, and also sheds light on the origins of OWS's highly effective "We are the 99%" framing. There's much much more in Graeber's essay worth chewing on; I think if OWS can be said to have an intellectual godfather, he's your guy.

All of these articles also make note of how various prior grass-roots efforts at raising economic populist issues, notably including the labor solidarity protests in Wisconsin last winter and the "Bloombergville" encampment in City Hall Park earlier this year, contributed inspiration and bodies to what has now become a mushrooming popular movement. Or, as PdF friend and new media theorist Douglas Rushoff recently tweeted, how OWS "is less a protest than a prototype" of a completely different way of doing politics.

But here's a question to ponder: Did OWS succeed simply because it was non-hierarchical in method, had smart framing in tune with public anger about the economy and Wall Street, and made really effective use of social media? If that was all it took to ignite a self-organizing movement for economic justice, then why didn't a very similar effort, called "The Other 98%," take off last year? Why didn't the US Uncut movement, a spin-off of an ongoing street protest movement in England, take off here this past winter? Why didn't Van Jones' new "Rebuild the Dream" movement, which was launched this summer with the backing of MoveOn, labor and the progressive netroots, take off?

It's fun to go back and look at what these groups were doing over the last year and a half, since so much of it appears, on the surface, to be just like Occupy Wall Street.

Take "The Other 98%," for example. On Tax Day 2010, a band of progressive activists showed up at the big Tea Party rally in Washington, DC, determined to counter their anti-government message. At first, they called themselves "the other 95%," as the video below shows, a reference to the Americans who have received tax cuts under President Obama, but soon they went by "the other 98%"--the people who didn't benefit, they say, from President Bush's 2001 tax cuts for the wealthiest.

The group had pitch perfect messaging, if you compare it to what's working for Occupy Wall Street now. "We are hard-working Americans who are tired of seeing CEOs and lobbyists hijack our democracy to serve themselves at the expense of everyone else," reads their "about" page. The tagline, "Making democracy work for the rest of us," also could been pulled straight from the posters held by Occupiers around the country. And they had infectious social media, a Facebook page with more than 100,000 "likes", and viral hits like this video of a flash mob taking over a Target-store, Glee-style, which got more than 1.5 million views.

Not enough street, you're saying? Well, look at US Uncut, which got a big push from The Nation magazine last winter (shades of Adbusters!), and which rallied people to hold sit-ins at the storefronts and headquarters of various bogeyman corporations whose tax avoidance was deemed shameful. Their goal, to "make corporate tax avoiders pay," is just as populist as anything else the OWS folks are voicing. Modeled on the much more popular UK Uncut movement, US Uncut insisted that it was a decentralized, horizontal effort. "It is entirely up to you to plan your action and go forward with it," their website's What To Do page tells visitors. The weekend of April 15-18th, there were more than 100 local US Uncut actions around the country, and yet the group never grew much beyond that, though a trickle of local actions have continued.

Too negative? Not prefigurative enough of a better future? Well, look at Rebuild the Dream, which launched this past summer with powerhouse speaker Van Jones at its head and veteran organizers Natalie Foster and Billy Wimsatt guiding its strategy. The group "crowdsourced" its "Contract For the American Dream," tapping the opinions of thousands of online participants and producing a ten-point list of demands that should have engaged the attention of the same people now rallying to Occupy their cities' centers. It got the backing of organized labor and big e-groups like MoveOn. And it held a big coming out conference in Washington at the beginning of October at the venerable Campaign for America's Future "Take Back America" conference, where a stellar array of progressive notables offered their endorsements. And yet, who is talking about Van Jones or Rebuild the Dream right now?

I asked Andrew Boyd, one of the co-founders of "The Other 98%," why Occupy Wall Street was succeeding compared to these other efforts. I should note that Andrew is an old friend of mine who has been doing online and street organizing for many years (he was one of the co-founders of Billionaires for Bush or Gore back in 2000/04), and he and his colleagues are now very involved in helping the Occupy Wall Street movement. He offered three reasons:

1. There's a little bit of randomness to what works. You have to just keep throwing things against the wall until something sticks. That said, there were clearly nerves to strike.

2. The tactic of occupation: The permanence of it. We're not going to leave, we're going to stick it out. The personal commitment and determination of people on the ground to see that through. That creates a human story and drama and a demonstration of personal commitment that matters, regardless of whether people think they're "dirty hippies." And it creates a dramatic narrative, too. Will the cops kick them out? Will they outlast the weather?

3. The lack of demands: Functionally it's genius, even if it wasn't strategically intentional. This makes OWS an open space a that everyone can bring their resentments, anger, longings, and dreams, to. It also puts OWS in the "right vs wrong box," instead of in the "political calculation" box. It doesn't feel calculated.

Those last two points, I think, deserve more attention. Unlike these other well-intentioned attempts by American progressives to organize public attention on the issues of economic justice and democracy, Occupy Wall Street isn't slick. It isn't focus-grouped. It isn't something professional activists would do. Instead, it feels authentic. The scene at Zuccotti Park, the videos of those women being pepper-sprayed, and of young people being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, calmly offering their crossed-hands to police officers, reek of authenticity. And social media knows the difference.

Willie Osterweil, one of the participants in the planning for OWS, put it this way in an email thread from early August, which he's given me permission to quote:

We don't want observers, we want participants. We don't want to convince someone in an elevator ride to sign a paper or donate money, we want people to express themselves and experience and fight for freedom. We don't want a media headline, we want our own media. We don't want supporters, we want comrades.

As the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto wrote more than a decade ago, we instinctively know the difference between a human voice and a corporate voice. I know it may sound strange to say this, but could it be that the reason that so many progressive social change projects fail to connect with ordinary people and move them to action, is because they seem too corporate in style? Think of all those hand-scrawled signs on scraps of cardboard vs a thousand professionally printed signs from a union shop--which is more authentic?

Boyd offers a fourth reason for Occupy Wall Street's rapid spread: it isn't afraid to talk about revolution, a subject that may be on more minds that people realize. "This is a rebel yell, they're running the revolutionary flag up the flagpole. It's fucking bold." Indeed it is. And it's coming at a moment, in the wake of the August debt ceiling battle, when many Americans seem especially disenchanted with both parties' leadership in Washington and literally searching for alternatives. And as David Graeber points out in his long essay on OWS"s "Strange Success," there are hints that a large portion of America's young people want to put topics on the table that the two-party system, with its longstanding rhetorical embrace of capitalism, just hasn't made room for. Now, thanks to their own audacious efforts, and the decentralization of media power, it may be that America is going to have a much wider debate about its future. One that includes the vast majority of people--98%, 99%, who's counting?

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Bonus link for the more internationally inclined: Paul Mason of the BBC, who wrote a very smart post last winter ("Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere") about the Arab Spring, factors in the current wave of worldwide protests, which he calls "a powerful signal worldwide" … that "people are determined to 'think globally' about routes out of this [economic] crisis."

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