Last night I observed the Occupy Chicago protests in the LaSalle Street Financial District and Grant Park--where the General Assembly meets daily to discuss what they stand for. The last time I was in Grant Park was on election night of November 2008 when Barack Obama made his victory speech. Overall, I was more hopeful for meaningful change on that night in 2008, than I am after visiting Occupy Chicago.
Ultimately, the Chicago Police Department arrested 175 protestors after I left. But, the cops seemed more supportive than hostile. It is truly a grass roots movement, and during the General Assembly anybody can speak their mind. In my view, such an inherently leaderless movement with the lack of any message discipline at all cannot effect change in modern America. The status quo simply holds too much wealth and power to be disrupted without a carefully orchestrated plan and message. Plan beats no plan and message beats no message.
Many speakers made cogent and important arguments regarding our economic realities. Some wondered about a so-called criminal justice system that incarcerates many poor people of color but allows powerful bankers to trash the economy with apparent impunity. Others noted that while valuable public workers like teachers, cops and firefighters face declining standards of living and job losses, financial elites enjoy mega-compensation for running an increasingly dysfunctional financial sector. One speaker highlighted cuts in social services that are apparently necessitated by the bailouts of Wall Street and the ruined economy. Many protested the fact that our economy fails to produce opportunities for even the highly educated, a key betrayal of the longstanding American social contract that promised prosperity to those who worked hard and earned a university education. These are well-founded points, backed by solid evidence that shows that financial and corporate elites have, in fact, rigged our economy so that they rake in millions regardless of merit while the vast majority of Americans face declining economic fortunes. It was inspiring to see ordinary Americans gather in peace to make their views known on these critical points.
But, many highlighted longstanding grievances having nothing to do with the current crisis that brought out the protestors. Thus, one speaker discussed the need to abolish the death penalty and another decried the number of mentally ill people we incarcerate in America. A flier shined light on the new book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton, that alleges the FBI murdered the Black Panther Leader in Chicago in the 1970s. An immigrant claimed he did not come to invade Chicago, but to occupy Chicago. These obvious wedge issues have long operated to entrench the power of elites, to divide working classes, and to ultimately give the powerful an additional political lever to use law to enhance their profits.
Worse, some spoke about nonsense or even made offensive points. An invitation to the next American Communist Party Rally in DC was issued (I forgot the date). The American Socialist Party also spoke. One speaker urged support for Rand Paul. He also urged the crowd to insist upon an audit of the gold held by the US. Another speaker argued that we should get rid of all corporations. Signs argued that "capitalism will never be democracy."
In the end, it would be difficult to craft a message of more limited effectiveness than that I witnessed at Occupy Chicago last night. Arguing in favor of communism over capitalism at the same time as supporting Rand Paul seems almost calculated to alienate as many potential supporters as possible.
I fundamentally support the key points motivating the protestors: Wall Street holds too much power and our government must prune it back; middle class workers need more jobs, more opportunities and urgent recapitalization; and our economy is rigged in favor of the very wealthy.
Unfortunately, without message discipline and a plan to really challenge the status quo, the success of the movement will prove fleeting and next November we will again be faced with limited choices for real change. The Occupy Wall Street movement needs a platform.