The talking points had been established well in advance, but they were reinforced while listening to talk radio on my way to the Occupy Oakland west coast port shutdown. The occupiers are hurting the ones they claim to represent, so goes the refrain – a convenient and welcome one for those already aligned against OWS, an honest one for the workers directly affected. The host, taking pains to self-identify as an OWS sympathizer, decided to take a hardline stance, stubbornly challenging every pro-port shutdown caller with the question: “Would you be willing to reimburse a worker’s $400 in lost wages?”
No caller could come up with an effective response, either dancing around the question or coughing up a desperate “it’s for the greater good” rationalization. Code Pink offered its own answer at the rally, collecting donations to cover the lost wages. The majority of the callers, however, were against the shutdown, once again exposing the main dilemma OWS continues to face – the delicate balance between moral certainty and public relations.
Make no mistake. To me, the shutdown was justified. Rather than putting a significant dent in the pocketbooks of the 1%, it was a reminder of something we had all but forgotten – the people really keeping our economy afloat wear blue collars, not white ones. In order to realize fundamental change, we must engage the apparatus of the 1%, and naturally, that apparatus is maintained by the 99%. It’s a wildly clever design. Any effort to reform it will automatically hurt the ones being exploited by it, and in fact, will be reprimanded by them. If workers – both at the ports and everywhere else in the world – had more time to reflect, perhaps they would see past the short-term pain of a day’s lost wages, and question why that should be such a hardship, given how hard they work to maintain the fortunes of the 1%.
But you can’t blame them for this. Reflection isn’t encouraged in the system built by the 1%, maintaining the apparatus is, which is why the biggest hurdle for OWS up to this point has been communicating its message. It’s a nuanced message that speaks of the deep-seated corruption and calculated, exploitative nature of our current global economic system, and the need to replace it. Yet people are too busy maintaining that system to pick up that message, clinging to the hasty assumption that incremental, less fundamental change is all that’s required.
So it’s music to the 1%’s ears when they read a story with a blue-collar worker admonishing occupiers for depriving them of his wages, or a city official guilting them about having to dip into reserve funds, or a business owner linking a slow month to protest activity, or a citizen bemoaning the loss of access to public space to OWS. Again and again, these same people, just like the radio host, will often say something about how they agree with many of the tenets or the overall message of the Occupy movement, they just disagree with this one tactic. They agree with the goal, but don’t appear to want any of the messiness that goes along with achieving that goal, failing to realize that the only way to truly change the system to make it more favorable to the 99%, is to truly change the system. It requires rocking the foundation, rebuilding the structure, questioning everything, and adopting a new lexicon. Continuing to petition the overlords, continuing to debate on the 1%’s terms, and continuing to appeal to the same default lingo of jobs, wages, growth, etc., only plays into their hands – reinforcing and perpetuating the misguided value system that led us to this point. We don’t need the 1%’s jobs, we can provide our own. We’re not the ones who care about incessant growth, the 1% are. We need to stop playing on their turf, and cultivate our own.
Nevertheless, as morally certain as we may be, it’s the public relations side of the dilemma that deserves more attention at this time. OWS needs to understand that being right is not always enough, and that at this point in the movement’s development, the top focus must remain rallying the ambivalent 99% to our cause. We may understand the finer points of the argument that justifies the port shutdown, but to the worker, it isn’t relevant at this time. Rightly or wrongly, all he’s thinking about is his lost wages. He’s not dwelling on the working conditions of the sweatshop workers that likely produced the goods on those containers, and how improving their conditions might improve his. Similarly, most people reading about the port shutdown or listening to a talk show discussing it aren’t reflecting in-depth. They too are busy maintaining a different section of the 1%’s apparatus, and as a result, will typically gravitate towards views that make sense on the surface, and break down only after further inspection. The port shutdown hurts workers. It’s a logical, easy to latch onto position, and since further inspection usually never occurs, that’s the position they stick with.
Whether we like it or not, this is the reality OWS is forced to contend with. So how do we respond? By coming up with logical, easy to latch onto concepts of our own. Concepts that are unambiguous, uncontroversial, and don’t require further inspection to grasp. Continuing to protest banks, lobbyists, Wall Street, the White House, and both wings of congress are all solid options. However, the true next step in my opinion should be in the arena of solutions. For the majority of people who have grown accustomed to haphazardly consuming their news from the default outlets, the stories that cut through the clutter most effectively are positive and solutions-oriented. So it’s time for OWS to start solving problems, independent of the current system. It’s time to create the alternative, and to start being for things, not just against things.
Instead of spending the whole day protesting outside JP Morgan, spend half the day doing that, and the other half at a homeless shelter, providing the much needed manpower and brainpower to make progress on their behalf. Instead of spending the whole day railing against the Keystone XL pipeline, spend half the day doing that, and the other half going door-to-door, educating citizens on the various ways of making their homes and neighborhoods self-sustainable, enabling them to keep their money and sever their personal feeding tube to fossil fuel conglomerates. It will be harder to brand occupiers as un-American, directionless, solutionless slackers if stories like this become the norm.
Eventually, and hopefully soon, OWS will have a plurality of support among the masses, and the majority will understand why a port shutdown is in their interest. At that time, sustained strikes, boycotts and shutdowns will be an option. For now, however, lets set that tactic aside. For now, public relations is more important than moral certainty.