Occupy Wall Street marked its one-year anniversary Monday, but come tomorrow or later this week, I doubt many people will be talking about today's demonstrations. From the beginning, Occupy has had a communications problem, and it hasn't been able to evolve its image beyond a loud disruption, or to some, a mere annoyance.
Media photos of the protestors epitomize the most negative OWS stereotype: scruffy 20-somethings who are blocking traffic instead of going to work. Some critics have dismissed the movement because of this image, and fewer people are turning up for demonstrations. That's a shame, because I and most of the young people whom OWS is supposed to have mobilized would agree with its core principles of social equality and anti-corruption. Last year, many of my friends – saddled with student loan debt, unemployment, or both – turned up at Zuccotti Park to survey the scene, but this morning all I heard from my peers were complaints about clogged traffic and closed streets.
The problem is not what OWS stands for, but in how that message has been communicated. I don't see myself in the most vocal demonstrators, who jab their fingers in police officers' faces or wave signs in the air. I'd rather have a conversation than compete in a shouting war.
The movement's message is getting lost on others, too. How many people know that the offshoot group Occupy Our Homes has taken tangible steps to stop foreclosures nationwide, or that activists helped resolve a labor dispute with workers at a bakery in Manhattan's Upper East Side?
While reading coverage of Monday's OWS gatherings, I thought of another protest happening in another city: the Chicago teachers' strike that just entered its second week. Last week, I spoke to public affairs professionals in Chicago who said some people were “getting disconnected from the teachers” because of the union's aggressive, hard-line rhetoric.
That point might serve as a reminder to Occupy, and to anyone else trying to start a movement or campaign. Passion is important, but it must be balanced by concrete solutions and collaboration. Occupiers should talk more about the practical ways they're benefitting communities. They should do more to raise visibility of the diverse people behind the movement, and the relevance of their message to varied segments of society. They should seek feedback and start more conversations with business owners, political organizers, religious leaders, and others outside their network. Maybe then the people to whom they are speaking will actually start to listen.