Occupy Wall Street: A model of how not to start a movement


Honolulu’s Occupy Wall Street protesters were sentenced this past week for their illegal presence in an Oahu park. It was another small end to an idea that started on the nation’s streets, migrated to the parks of several big cities and ultimately went nowhere.

It’s interesting to look back on what appeared to some a popular movement and reflect why Occupy went to the parks and finally went home with little accomplished, leaving litter in the parks and a few trespassing arrests but no lasting legacy.

If Occupy truly represented the 99 percenters, those in our nation who do not hold the bulk of its personal wealth — the so-called one percenters — why did it founder so easily and lose its message?

It may have been a simple matter of identity, failure to forge a clear purpose and direction, and a case of lousy branding. It was, by all backward perspective measures, a marketing disaster.

Any political, social or economic movement must be marketed — sold to those you seek to enlist or subscribe. To accomplish that end, you don’t pick a moniker that doesn’t clearly reflect a long-term goal, and you don’t reach that goal if you can’t communicate it clearly, quickly and concisely to an audience whose attention span beyond 15 minutes is rare.

If the Occupy movement intended for wealth redistribution, that never was made clear. Subscribers to the movement obviously and correctly ascribed the root cause of our recent Great Recession to this country’s financial industry, enterprises clearly represented and personified by Wall Street. And when Wall Street crumbled, it was the taxpayers, many would say the so-called 99 percenters, who anted up to bail them out through federal programs and relief. At the same time, they recognized, no federal programs were available to them to prevent record mortgage foreclosures and personal fiscal disaster. And as mortgages unraveled, along with the financial industry, it became more apparent the risks and extremes were embraced by these financial institutions as a means to increase their profit margin. To some, the insult was double: The very institutions their tax dollars bailed out in the wake of unsound lending, exposure and financial transactions were turning around and foreclosing on their homes, some foreclosures even signed and processed mechanically — the so-called robo signing foreclosures — further dehumanizing the process.

“Too big to fail” was mirrored on a much bigger scale by “too small to help.”

This scenario, though perhaps oversimplified, describes the fertile ground in which the Occupy movement seeds were planted. All the elements were present to gain popular support, yet it failed miserably to do so.

But what did Occupy really want? What was the end goal?

It is easy to look back on mistakes and clearly many were made. But the greatest are also the easiest to recognize.

While “occupying Wall Street” might have been a good attention-building initial move, it instead became the essence of a failure. It was finally misnomer that defined a miscalculation.

The biggest miscalculation of the group was to believe it could effect change from tents in parks or simply holding signs on the streets. The message was lost; their foes — the so-called one percenters and financial giants — were amused perhaps, but completely unaffected by any of what transpired. They made their millions while perhaps thousands across the country camped in the parks, their numbers declining with the seasonal temperature decline.

The Occupy movement didn’t understand a most basic tenet: What matters most to people with money is — money. The movement was ignorant of that, just as it was ignorant of how to communicate its goal to the broadest audience, even when the national media for weeks on end focused upon it. During the Vietnam war era, protesters made a difference, finally, but all along, their message was clear and consistent. How clear or consistent was the Occupy Wall Street message? Better yet, what was the message?

Had it been properly organized, Occupy could have benefitted from larger public dissatisfaction and disgust. It could have employed product boycotts that targeted those businesses that the movement took issue with, say a corporate giant who paid no federal income tax, or one that shipped its manufacturing offshore.

The 99 percenters forgot, to their peril, the key fact and strength they hold: They are the 99 percent. They may not hold all the wealth, but they are the bulk of consumer buying power and they are the bulk of the popular vote.

Not sure about the power of market pressure? Remember Cesar Chavez? Or more recently, consider the sudden shift by Bank of America away from its proposed fee hikes after consumers balked openly and vociferously at the suggestion.

Just as there is power in wealth, there is power in numbers. What counts most is the goal of that power. Is it more money? Is it a better society?

Defining a goal is a prerequisite to attaining it. Without that, a movement, political party, business or project is adrift and bound to founder.

rflickinger@westhawaiitoday.com