The Occupy Wall Street movement is at a crossroads.
Since the protesters in Zuccotti Park who made headlines around the world were ousted from their New York City encampment in November, and other demonstrators were sent packing in cities across the country, observers have been left wondering whether the movement is on its deathbed or will transform and grow in the coming year.
With that in mind, POLITICO asked cultural critics, advertising and messaging gurus, activists and others for their ideas about how Occupy can stay relevant.
“Revolutions always start at universities.”
That’s the observation of Kalle Lasn, editor of the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, who believes the Occupy movement needs to go back to a step that it skipped and focus on energizing students around the county and the world.
Lasn has been credited for “branding” Occupy Wall Street after he and his colleagues unwittingly gave the Occupy protesters their permanent name when they created the hash tag #OccupyWallStreet on Twitter in July.
“Campuses are the hot pit of new ideas and youthful vigor and fervor. But because of the way Occupy started in Zuccotti Park, the campuses fell behind this time around. But in the coming year, they will be a critical battleground,” he told POLITICO. “If the global economic situation gets worse, which I think it will, I predict that there’s going to be a lot of turmoil in the economic departments of universities.”
Lasn says there already have been rumblings that the occupations of parks and public squares will be replaced by the occupation of university econ departments in 2012. He believes students should revolt against the outdated “Econ 101” foundation that has propped up economics curricula at universities for decades.
“We want to grab the old-school practitioners, grab them by the neck and throw them out, and hopefully a new generation of economists will rise up,” Lasn said. “We’re looking for bioeconomists, psychoeconomists, barefoot economists – people who go out into real places in the world and solve problems of people who are suffering.”
Lasn, who is currently writing a book called “Occupy Econ 101” – a “manifesto” of sorts for students interested in the Occupy Campus movement — contends that Occupy Wall Street has successfully rejuvenated the political left, and that the moment is ripe to tap into the energy and discontent of students.
“If the Occupy movement cannot take hold on campuses, then we might as well go home and have another beer,” he said.
Anything “corporate” may seem counterintuitive to the figure-it-out-as-we-go approach of Occupy, but the bottom line is that a little bit of organization can go a long way, experts say.
“They can become something like MoveOn.org – cultivate supporters, develop a very clear, defined agenda, keep a grassroots flavor by crowd sourcing, and get some powerful allies to back you,” said Dan Tisch of Argyle Communications, a public relations firm. “Nobody has a copyright on Occupy, so I think there is a space there for somebody who wants to be creative to grab it and build it.”
Crowd sourcing, which uses the wisdom of the crowd to develop and build a consensus on an issue and frequently happens in an online context, can help Occupy develop policies that enjoy strong support, Tisch said.
Meanwhile, economist and business strategy consultant Kay Plantes says the Occupy movement should consider going into business and making money while staying true to its message.
Whether it’s selling products by tapping into the “buy local” phenomenon or partnering with community banks and credit unions so a small sum of money goes to Occupy every time someone opens an account, Plantes says there is a wealth of resources Occupiers can tap into.
“If Occupy Wall Street wants to advance its agenda … it’s going to have to raise money,” Plantes said. “They can find a social enterprise that cares about the concerns that Occupy Wall Street is raising, be it around the environment or home foreclosures, and begin to monetize their community.”
Several media consultants have this recommendation for Occupy: Let’s go to the video.
According to a recent poll, a majority of Americans – almost 6 of 10 people – don’t know enough about the Occupy movement to have an opinion about it. Experts say that needs to change if Occupy is to have a future.
David Sauvage, who has produced commercials about Occupy and works closely with the movement, says one of the biggest challenges is simply “communicating our message to the masses of people who don’t know what on earth we’re doing,” and that video can be key to remedying this problem.
He suggests creating educational videos and documentaries to explain who the Occupiers are and to dispel the notion that the movement is violent.
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“Our inclination is to point the camera where cops are hitting protesters, but this gets overplayed. Ultimately, you lose people by showing cops hitting protesters – it’s in the human psyche to say, ‘Well, the protesters are encouraging this,’” he told POLITICO.
The messages in the videos must be fine-tuned so they are understandable and not offensive to the average person, he added.
As an example of how to use video to message effectively, Sauvage said, “‘I want economic justice,’ is a powerful message, but ‘I want money to be distributed more equally’ is not only not powerful, worse, it falls into a socialist paradigm.”
Bill Hillsman, a Minneapolis-based media consultant who specializes in outsider campaigns, says Occupy can learn from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.
His campaign ads and videos “rarely have to do with Ron Paul – they are more about issues of the day than having Ron Paul’s face or his voice, which is not the way to get people excited,” he said.
According to Hillsman, Occupiers, too, would profit from pointing the camera away from themselves.
“I would focus a lot on the villains. Banks, politicians, administration figures – there’s a lot of culpability here to go around,” he said.
Sauvage also noted the movement purchased the domain Occupy.com about a month ago and is in the process of figuring out a way to use the website to better communicate the movement’s message to the world. The site might be a perfect showcase for the videos.
Some say Occupy should remain on the streets, staying relevant and making headlines with an ongoing campaign of outrageous acts.
While Tisch refrained from endorsing any specific attention-grabbing tactic, the PR guru said that virtually anything edgy that attracts media attention is fair game, whether it’s giving out “corporate greed awards,” occupying the roof of a government building and hanging a banner down the side of it – as Greenpeace activists did in 2009 on the opening day of a climate change summit in Ottawa – or chasing around politicians.
The strategy, which is all about embracing a more radical spirit and attracting notice through the sheer audacity of the stunts, could provide a lifeline to the Occupy movement as it teeters on the brink of losing momentum.
Done correctly, the stunts can “preserve the ethos of the movement, and it feels somewhat grassroots [and spontaneous], even if it’s very carefully planned,” Tisch said.
He added, “They can decide how controversial they want to be, and sure, any radical action that will command action will draw backlash. So they’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Todd Gitlin, an expert on social movements and a 1960’s political activist, believes the solution for Occupy could lie in Congress.
The Columbia University professor argues that Occupiers are constituents first and protesters second, and says Occupy must lobby Congress to pass legislation addressing the movement’s concerns.
“They should besiege their political representatives,” Gitlin said. “They need to explain to members of Congress that the crushing burden of the economic collapse upon vast numbers of Americans is central to the fate of these politicians.”
In fact, on Jan. 17, the movement plans to take their message to Capitol Hill, in an event similar to the “Take back the Capitol” movement that thousands participated in in December.
Gitlin says he would be “astounded” if Democrats remained aloof from the Occupy movement, saying such a move would be “really quite stupid.”
“The Occupy movement is actually a strong suit for Democrats to play,” he said. “These people are their constituents, and they are constituents whose views are popular views.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a veteran of the civil rights movement, agrees that Occupy must seize the national issues that are poised to shape 2012.
“2012 will be another big year of choice for America’s direction. Will we embrace voter suppression? Will we revolve around poverty or launch a war on poverty? Will we continue to pay for expensive and unnecessary wars? Will we fight for minimum wage?” he asked. “At some point, the spirit and the idea of Occupy must take on concrete, legislative issues.”