To Be Taken Seriously, Occupy Wall Street Needs To Focus Its Message

Back in the '60s, when Dr. King gave his world-changing speech in Washington, the movement was centered on a specific desired outcome--legislation to enforce racial equality. In the early '70s, protesters gathered for a different specific outcome--to get out of Vietnam.

Today, we have cities around the world being "occupied" by protestors trying to start a movement. Unlike their predecessors, however, their demands are vague, muddled, and completely inactionable.

I was in San Francisco last week and wandered into "occupied" territory. I spoke to several protesters with an open mind to better understand what they want changed. Rather than clearly articulated demands, I heard a mish-mash of angry spew. Here are some actual responses I received when I asked the simple question of "What do you want to happen?"

"It isn't fair that big companies make a lot of money but we are poor."

"We're the 99%, man. Why should Warren Buffet pay less tax than his secretary?"

"I deserve healthcare." 

"Government and business have all the power. Do you know much Exxon makes?" 

"It's time we stood up for our rights as citizens. We won't be silenced!"

I searched the camp, politely asking what specific objectives they were trying to achieve.  I could not get a single coherent answer. Did they want Bank of America to start handing out crisp hundreds to anyone who asks? Did they want to change tax policy in a Robin Hood redistribution-of-wealth fashion? Did they want the SEC to restrict companies from profiting or creating jobs?

Industry or government is not taking the Occupy movement seriously, mainly because they are not rallied around a specific mission. Being angry and having a lot of wants doesn't motivate change. While they profess to represent "the 99%," they are really just a fringe group of frustrated people who would rather complain than make a real difference. As a result, it is highly unlikely that this "movement" will accomplish much of anything.

If you are an entrepreneur, business executive, marketer, community leader, or any person seeking to drive progress, you need to do two important things that the Occupiers are missing:

1. Create a rational case for change.  Just being angry isn't enough. You need to clearly articulate why the current state is unacceptable in a thoughtful, reasonable way. No one will be moved to action unless they understand why they must act.

2. Make a specific, realistic ask.  Demanding a Prius and a high-paying job for every American is a foolish, unattainable request that is completely inactionable. On the other hand, real change can occur when a rational and consistent solution is proposed.

Now I'm all about shattering conventional wisdom and driving meaningful change.  There's simply a way to effectuate progress that can yield actual results and another way that creates only agitation. 

As you frame your own passionate case for the things you want in your own life, choose the method that will actually get something done.  It's one thing to "occupy."  It's another thing to win.

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[Image: Flickr user Barry Yanowitz]

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2 Comments

  • Xylene2301

    People that expect the OWS protesters to give politically meaningful reasons for being there don't understand the fundamentals of civil disobedience.  In the end it's just so many pissed off people in the way that it makes doing business as usual impossible for the government and that's when they'll acknowledge that change is necessary and desirable.

  • Arthur Siegal

    Josh - I couldnt agree more.  While I think that the point of "we are the 99%" is very similar to past and current protest movements, the message has been muddled both by the media and the members themselves (who do everything apparently through a small d democracy - not the most efficient).

    My personal take on their message is simple - get corporate control and money out of government so that government will get back to making decisions based on the best interests of the country and not the donors/patrons.  The ask is less simple as it likely involves a complete restructuring of the way of funding congressional and presidential campaigns and a constitutional amendment to boot BUT, that is likely what is needed.