October 4, 2011

@occupywallstreet: Do Better, Or Don’t Do It

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When my brother came to visit Ithaca over Homecoming weekend, I anticipated the usual influx of news from the homestead in New York City. He recounted some tidbits about his work, and then, as something of an afterthought on the second day of his stay, he described the nascent protests taking place in downtown Manhattan. When he first told me about the band of young people camped out in Zuccotti Park, across from the World Trade Center site, I thought he was kidding. But he was not, and soon I found myself reading through the trending topics #occupywallstreet and #takewallstreet on Twitter as the size of the crowd ballooned from 200 to 5,000.

According to occupywallst.org, the information-sharing site for the loosely organized protest movement, “Occupy Wall Street is [a] leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. 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%.”

Now these protests aimed at corporate greed in America have spread to other cities. Some protesters complain that there hasn’t been enough media coverage of their movement, but they fail to recognize that a vague and poorly described mission without spokespeople or leadership makes for a boring news story. If media outlets are not covering Occupy Wall Street, it’s because of their bias towards snappier stories, not towards the Wall Street elite.

But even as media coverage of the protesters’ extended stay in Zuccotti Park has increased, the movement’s broad demands have not been not effectively communicated. There is no spokesperson, council of leaders or organizing entity to tell the press: “Tell the President and the people that this is what we want.”

Though I read a collection of articles on the subject, I just came across a garbled mess of different opinions. It’s frustrating to listen to and hardly does much to attract others to the Occupy Wall Street cause. Like it or not, the media can be the people’s tool. Instead of facilitating that, however, those running occupywallst.org alienate news sources (and subsequently would-be participants) with their wishy-washy ways.

Media sources like Al Jazeera were pivotal to success of the Arab Spring movements so often cited as the inspiration for Occupy Wall Street. But protesters in the Middle East combated physically and emotionally to record governmental abuses and risked exposure to access Internet. The Occupy Wall Street movement has missed the fundamental point that a cause is not entitled to attention just because it’s a cause. Part of being a successful activist is making your cause known. Americans have the right to protest, but no one is obligated to care. Nor is anyone likely to, without some communication of objectives. Clarity of motivations and goals is incredibly important, and the movement would have gained much more steam, respect and legitimacy had someone taken the initiative to develop that and publicize what demands have been enumerated.

The comparison to the Arab Spring is irritating for more than just the above reason. Corporate interests in American government are reason for concern. They don’t, however, hold the weight in our lives that abusive, autocratic leaders held in the lives of Arab citizens for three decades. Those who protested in Tahrir — or “liberation” — Squares all over the Middle East did so because they had no other option. We, on the other hand, have ample institutionalized opportunities to protest: they’re called elections. We are liberated, we just don’t appreciate it. I can’t support the Occupy Wall Street movement because people who are part of it fundamentally ignore the system that the rest of the country is operating in. We can’t change a system unless pioneers choose to operate within that system and change society from the inside out.

Yesterday, a Sun guest column attributed the Occupy Wall Street movement to “new activism.” But is this activism? It’s a long-term rally around a general idea, but activism entails really doing something, saying something, arguing something. “Corporate influence in government is bad” isn’t a persuasive argument. It’s an opinion that someone else who is better prepared, older and more experienced can easily come along and knock down — or worse, ignore.

Let’s actually be activists, and not be ignored. Our youth should not rely on the government to do something that we know is fundamentally unrealistic. Instead let’s support candidates who do not accept large donations from corporations. Even better, let’s become those candidates in five years and change legislation on lobbying in Congress. If our political structure stops allowing us to try those measures, then let’s take to the streets. But until then we’re just ignoring possibilities in favor of complaints.

Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry