Putting Pundits to Shame: Protesters Know Exactly What They're Fighting For

Their style may not have been as mainstream as the retirees attending a Glenn Beck rally, but they knew precisely what they were there for.

It should come as a surprise to nobody that the corporate media's early coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement has featured an abundance of hippie-punching but very little about the substantive issues driving thousands of Americans to take over the streets of cities across the country.

As I approached the 30 or so activists who have been camped out for weeks in front of the Federal Reserve Building as part of OccupySF – a protest smaller than those in New York, Boston or Los Angeles – I'd been primed by news stories heaping scorn on these ostensibly confused, foul-smelling rebels-without-a-cause, but what I encountered was very different.

I discovered that while their style may not have been as mainstream as that of the retirees attending a Glenn Beck rally, they knew precisely what they were there for. They had specific demands and even a simple-to-understand "bumper-sticker" message. “We stand for the 99 percent who don't have much of a voice in this system,” a young woman named Melissa told me. A recent graduate with “not much in the way of job prospects,” she said she'd never been involved in a protest before.

Genuine grassroots movements don't begin with poll-tested messages or slick media operations and aren't fronted by polished spokespeople. In any group of ordinary citizens, be it a Shriner's convention or an uprising against the Wall Street hucksters who took down the global economy, there will be some number who are in fact confused or clueless. A visiting reporter can shape whatever narrative he or she chooses by simply selecting whom to interview and which parts of those interviews make the cut.

At OccupySF on Saturday morning, I too could have crafted a story of hapless, unfocused hipsters had I chosen to focus on the 20-year-old kid serenading confused tourists with a bullhorn rendition of “You Are So Beautiful.” But it wouldn't have been honest. A minute after he began crooning, several other activists told him that he wasn't doing much good for the cause.

Instead, I decided to speak with a man named John, who I found collating and stapling a box of leaflets fresh from the copy store. A 30-something dressed in a tie-dyed shirt who had been “out of work for about two years,” John was noticably uncomfortable being interviewed. He asked me several times if he could start an answer over. “You'll edit that part out?” he asked me more than once. “I'm really not good at public speaking,” he said, awkwardly.

Then, in stops and starts, John proceeded to lay out a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of our economic straits, and offered a series of very specific prescriptions for making the economy work for everyone, rather than just those at the top. It was a breakdown that made most of the pundits looking down their noses at the Occupy Wall Street movement look like superficial dilettantes obsessed with trivia.

“We know what we're against,” he told me, “but what do we stand for?” John had a 12-point agenda, which he acknowledged would “probably need to be condensed.” “We need to bring back Glass-Steagal,” he said, referring to the Depression-era law that created a firewall between investment- and commercial-banking. “It's really ironic that a law whose purpose was to prevent another Great Depression was repealed and now we have an economy that is worse than at any time since the Depression,” he said. “That's strange.”

“We need a massive investment in infrastructure, in green technology, high-speed rail, things like that,” he said. “We need to abandon or significantly modify these free-trade agreements like NAFTA... these weren't the result of some democratic groundswell. They were written by lobbyists,” he told me. “You know, to oversimplify things, they're intended to maximize corporate profits.”

John talked of a shorter work week to bring down unemployment, like the successful work-sharing programs in Germany; an idea economists like Dean Baker have espoused since the crash. He said we needed lobbying reform, and to mitigate the damage wrought by the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case. He advocated a Medicare buy-in be open to all citizens.

Was he a regular activist? “I protested in the past off and on, but I didn't always think there was much of a purpose for it,” he said.

What did he think the overarching message of the movement should be? “We don't have a government for 'we the people' anymore,” he said, “and I do believe we're going to have to have ongoing, non-stop protests for months to fix it.”

I asked him if he thought Americans had reached a tipping point. “It really seems like there's something happening here,” he told me. “I don't know if we've reached that point yet, but I think we probably will in the next few months. I think the movement is going to grow. And it's not a matter of voting in the right amount of Democrats, or Tea Partiers or whatever. The whole system is broken. You know, where were the Democrats when they were outsourcing our jobs for the last 30 years?”

As I wrapped up the interview, I added an unsolicited word of advice: “I'd consider just calling them trade agreements, instead of free-trade agreements,” I offered. Gesturing to the shuttered Federal Reserve building behind us, I added: “That's what they want you to call them.”

I returned late Sunday night to drop off some books and see what the “camp” looked like bedded down for the evening, after the usual mobs of tourists had left the area. I was surprised to see that the number of people had grown since the previous day. About 40 or 50 were gathered on Market Street, in sleeping bags and tents. Some brought their dogs; others played guitars. They had a first-aid station, a kitchen, a sanitation system. A nearby Starbucks had been “good about letting us use their bathrooms,” one protester told me. They appeared to be in it for the long-haul.

No, they didn't have poll-tested messaging or polished spokespeople like the Tea Partiers, another grassroots movement with an abundance of top-down messaging courtesy of GOP front groups like FreedomWorks and the Republican PR firm of Russo Marsh and Rogers. But they had something that's become increasingly rare in our political culture: a sense of community, of shared purpose.

As I left them, I couldn't help thinking, "Yes, there's definitely something happening here."

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