Occupying with a purpose

For the past six weeks, Occupy Wall Street has captured and confused our nation’s political consciousness. Indeed, a string of questions have emerged from the media’s endless stream of coverage concerning the protest. What exactly is this grassroots, leaderless movement? Is it the left’s answer to the Tea Party? A proletariat uprising preceding the coming communist revolution? Or, is it simply a motley crew of homeless, unemployed and fair-weather demonstrators? And, most importantly, what do they want?

I have been personally haunted by these questions for the past month, as friends and strangers alike have interrogated me about the movement. Apparently answering inquiries about any issue in the book is part of my job description as the political columnist! Having pleaded ignorance too many times, I decided to educate myself one weekend by taking a trip to Occupy Berkeley, our city’s subset of the larger movement.

Arriving on scene with a Flip Cam in one hand and notepad in the other, I was uncertain of what to expect. Indeed, after hours of interviews, observations and conversations, I left the occupation just as baffled as I arrived. There was no clear consensus among the occupiers about the root of our economic woes and what to do about it. Popular targets included capitalism, corporations, the government, the banks and every mixture imaginable of these four foes.

Their solutions were just as assorted, with proposals ranging from revolution to regulation to vegetarianism. Seriously, folks, I can’t make this stuff up. There was literally a fellow walking around asking people to “please choose vegan and vegetarian options.” By the end of the day, the only thing I could conclude, to borrow a line from the great lyricist Jay-Z, was that the 99 percent has “99 problems,” but being rich “ain’t one.”

Staying on message is perhaps the greatest difficulty for demonstrations nowadays. By their very nature, protests are composed of a multitude of people with multiple perspectives. The challenge comes in synthesizing these various elements into one well-defined movement. An amorphous opposition to the status quo, as seen by the occupiers today, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for political change. Rather, a successful campaign should have a clear diagnosis of a political problem and antidote to the ailment. Without these ingredients, any movement is bound to be a recipe for disaster. I believe our university’s higher education protests proves this point.

While the fight against tuition increases and budget cuts is arguably of a noble nature, the means by which the higher education movement has attempted to achieve its ends in indubitably ineffective. Year after year, the company has performed the same old song and dance of rallying on Sproul Plaza, parading around the campus and occupying buildings to a dwindling audience of students. This quandary can only be caused by its lack of a coherent message.

Rather than supporting specific policy solutions, the movement has resorted to uninspiring anger with the status quo summed up in eight oversimplified words: “No cuts. No fees. Education should be free.” Worst of all, its demonstrations usually devolve into diatribes against capitalism, racism and sexism — almost any other issue than the one at hand. This is precisely what the occupy movement must avoid.

Instead, the occupiers need a clear and consistent message and solution. But, what should that be? To answer this riddle, we should survey the current makeup of the movement. According to an ongoing CNN iReport poll, the largest fraction of occupiers, at 46 percent, report that they are protesting “government corruption.” This is a very appealing message. After all, corruption is opposed across all ideological lines, and our government is full of it.

Unsurprisingly, there is a substantially suspicious revolving door between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The federal government gives away billions of dollars in corporate welfare every year, ringing in at $92 billion in 2006. Furthermore, the Trouble Asset Relief Program rewarded banks and businesses with $700 billion over the past few years, despite being overwhelmingly opposed by 61 percent of Americans. This dubious interplay between government, banks and corporations is an easy target for people of all political influences to protest and thus should be the occupy movement’s aim.

In this manner, a unified alliance breaking ideological boundaries can arise across the country. Certainly concessions will have to be made. The callous crazies of the right will have to leave their Nazi Obama signs at home, and the reckless radicals of the left will have to take off their Che Guevara t-shirts. But at the end of the day, we can have a massive movement united against government corruption and crony capitalism. Now that’s a tune we can all sing to.