Occupy protests will die without meaning

Illustration by Dan Nacu

Colin Hannifin
Columnist

Illustration by Dan Nacu

In the past month, a protest that began on Wall Street has spread to the rest of the nation and the world. Cities throughout the United States (including Richmond) and across the globe – such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Berlin, to name a few – have all started their own movements echoing the Occupy Wall Street protest. The protest is the culmination of anger of many people about the economic status quo.

At least, that’s what I think they’re protesting. Having followed the protests, it’s clear that those involved don’t even know what they want. All they know is that they’re angry, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Take what? Excellent question. I have no idea.

While they liken their protest to the Arab Spring movement, which kick-started the Arabian revolutions that we’ve seen this year, it seems clear that these American protesters actually have less about which to protest. While it is true that the economy is hurting badly, jobs are not easy to come by and there is a large income disparity, Americans have yet to come up against a multi-decade dictator of tyrannical rule.

The similarities to the Arab Spring movement are trivial. but these protests are gaining steam and a worldwide following. It must mean something.

One key to an effective protest is having a focus. Protests aren’t meant to merely voice displeasure; they’re meant to inspire change. In the 1960s, protesters weren’t just lining up against the status quo. They were lining up for racial equality. In the 1970s, they came out to end the war in Vietnam. In the Middle East, they mobilized to boot out dictators.

But these Occupy Wall Street protests lack a change-centered focus. The protesters don’t seem to know what they want; they just know that the status quo isn’t working for them. Many are saying that this protest can exist without a focus. This is obviously true. If there are enough angry people out there, they may find the energy and time to protest for weeks or months. That’s great, but it won’t change anything.

I can’t deny that the protesters have a number of grievances. One of the largest cries, which harkens back to the initial financial collapse of 2008, is against corporate greed. I’m not sure what golden days they remember, but corporate greed has driven this country’s economy for more than a century. The building blocks of the great American economy that we all enjoy in times of growth and prosperity were laid in corporate boardrooms.

It’s easy to hate on big businesses, but the good economy we have enjoyed for most of our lives has been, in part, because of big businesses, not in spite of them. Sure, there are ample examples of the principal-agent issue (corporate leaders doing what is best for themselves personally in the short run, not the corporation in the long run), but that’s an issue that corporations have been trying to deal with for decades and is the fault of the individual, not the company.

They also decry political corruption and Washington’s love affair with money. I can’t exactly argue with the idea that law makers should be working independently of the influence of lobbyists and rich constituents. Our political system is undeniably flawed, but how does getting mad at corporate America solve this issue?

The fact is that corporations, like dedicated individuals, will try their hardest to effect legislation to those policies most favorable to themselves, but do so within the law. We can’t expect corporations to voluntarily give up any chance of influence; that would be foolish and a competitive disadvantage. This sounds like a matter better suited for an Occupy Washington movement, not an Occupy Wall Street one.

It seems that most of the protestors are primarily angry at their own particular situations. Many have an undesirable job or no job at all, too much debt and can’t find any way out of the hole they’re in. That’s truly awful, but that’s not the fault of Wall Street.

There aren’t a lot of jobs out there, but that’s not something unique to New Yorkers or Americans. It is up more up to the individual to find a job than it is the corporations’ responsibility to provide one. In an economy like this, a job is a job, whether it’s on Wall Street or the corner McDonald’s. Both are valid jobs, and shouldn’t be considered below anybody.

As for debt, that largely appears to be on the head of the consumer, not the banks. While some of companies may have acted unethically, the consumers acted more irresponsibly. Don’t take out loans you know you can’t afford, and don’t commit to payments you aren’t sure you’ll be able to make. The same is true with student debt. While I realize college has been oversold to high school students for several decades, potential students should know better than to assume college is the only acceptable path, even when you don’t have the means. For those looking for ways to improve their situation, it very likely comes with the help of big businesses, not in spite of them.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have yet to signal any long-term staying power. There isn’t an official list of grievances or demands, and this lack of focus handicaps the protest’s power to change the status quo. While there is still a chance for it to gain focus and impact the status quo, for the lack of focus and apparent knowledge of big business’s role in the economy, I imagine that after those who are upset have aired their grievances, the protests will end quietly without any meaningful impact.

1 Comment

  1. I have a feeling this student is privileged and doesn’t understand how many Americans live. I’m also not entirely sure they’ve had a chance to visit an occupation at any point. Their power is far beyond the simple demand; they’re building communities and making people more aware of fiscal irresponsibility in this country. Occupations are getting in the news and making people think. And to say this doesn’t have staying power — we’ll see, I suppose.

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