Despite critiques, they've already deployed strategic tactics and put important issues on the radar.
"What do they want?" "It won't last." "They're just a bunch of hippie kids."
Everybody is now weighing in with their take and critique of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, which is threatening to develop into a national and global movement. But at week three, many of those criticisms are unfair. From my experiences actually being among the protesters and talking with them, what they're building is an important movement that's already putting issues on the political map.
The Occupy Wall Street grievances that are motivating people to take action are based on the facts of growing inequality in the United States over the last 30 years. And contrary to sociologist Nina Eliasoph's contention that there's an "emptiness of the message itself so far," all of the protesters' complaints point to an overarching set of demands that fall under the themes of greater democracy in our plutocratic and oligarchic political system and greater equality and opportunity in the economy for the "99 percent" of Americans.
The criticism that they have no demands is also pretty ridiculous at this early stage. Protestor Hero Vincent points out the double standard of the charge: "Our constitution took a year to make. We've been here for three weeks and we're supposed to have an agenda? That makes no sense." Even if the protestors never came up with specific demands, they've already won by garnering media attention and putting the issue of economic inequality on the national agenda. This, in fact, is what movements do best: put issues on the political agenda that the two parties and our political institutions would much rather ignore. And this charge, as Betsy Reed points out, is beside the point. There are plenty of specific demands and policy proposals offered up by progressive and liberal groups, only to be ignored. It takes a social movement to put them on the agenda and in the national political discourse.
This critique is also a bit hypocritical, especially when compared with the Tea Party. Remember that when the Tea Party first emerged, they had no clear demands. And what few demands they came up with weren't even based in fact: "President Obama is a socialist" or "Get your government hands off my Medicare."
The media isn't giving the protesters their fair due, either. It is striking that the coverage of Occupy Wall Street has underplayed how nonviolent and peaceful the protests are. Contrast that with the coverage of the Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010, where angry and older white Americans were showing up strapped with guns at town hall meetings. Can you imagine what would happen if any of the Occupy Wall Street protesters had any weapons on them? I can. (See, for an example, the vilification and outright repression by the police and FBI of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s.) When old, angry white guys show up to public places with guns, they are patriots taking back America. When a diverse group of young, angry, yet fun protestors show up to public places unarmed and nonviolent, they are "hippies" and dismissed for two weeks before police overreaction sparks more media coverage.
Their tactics may seem unconventional to the establishment, but they threaten to have a lasting effect. Ignore them at your own risk.
Dorian Warren is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.