Feature photo by David Shankbone

A cop happily directed me to the site of the protest. “Take a left up on Liberty; head to Broadway. They should be there.” His uniformed buddy looked on with more of the steely tension I expect from an officer. Arms crossed, eyes straight, make my day. The one directing was friendly. “They’re still there?” I asked. “Oh, yeah.” His nod considered the horizon: “I think they’re gonna be there.”

His helpfulness was the last thing that surprised me the day I checked out the Wall Street protest. What awaited us onlookers at Zuccotti Park was a sight sadly familiar to my Oak Park eyes: a colorful, buzzing, utterly directionless liberal sit-in. A few days before, some of the protesters were maced by white-shirt NYPD officers. A few days later, another police clash ensued a march on the Brooklyn Bridge. Celebrities stopped by to express support. But on the day that I visited, the only attraction was the protest itself, and I came away wanting. The corrugated mosaic of signs lying on the ground vibrated with energy, but not in sync. Phrases punchier than others lay alongside vitriol more angry than others and solutions more productive than others. After a lap around the perimeter and a chat with a few Occupants, there was only one conclusion I could reach: these people have no idea what they want.

The founding goal of Occupy Wall Street was a good one: “We demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” The group who organized the event, Adbusters, rightly proclaims that this goal is “uncomplicated” and achievable. In practice, however, there is no sign of anything ideologically simple or achievable at Occupy Wall Street. In keeping with the antiestablishmentarianism of the rally, there is no central authority. There is also no evidence of the central message. Occupy Wall Street stirs many of the ingredients needed to foment this country’s next populist movement—arguably, a real populist movement—but it still lacks leadership or a coherent message. What exactly do they want? They want inequality to end. No, they want financial fraud to stop. No, they want bankers arrested. No! They want class warfare! I personally want an Italian beef combo, but good luck finding one in New York. The simplicity of the original goal is fatally subverted by the lack of prominence given to it.

A protest is most effective as a register of dissent. It doesn’t have to be constructive to be valid because a protest is reactive. A protest’s primary achievement is to speak to power, and indicate for posterity, that these people, on this date, were deeply concerned. But all protests, at some level, aspire to grow into movements. Only movements effect change. The difference between a protest and a movement is that at some point, the protest stops reacting and starts to build momentum as a vision. The Tea Party, for all its crooked ideology, is visionary—its message is serviceable as a political platform. Occupy Wall Street could similarly seize the popular imagination if only it disabused itself of its commitment to powerlessness and aligned the event to any one vision.

Occupy Wall Street has some organizational leadership; now it needs political leadership. Its first duty should be to purge the protest’s encumbering extremism and promote a set of actionable goals. “Ending inequality” is not actionable, and “arrest a banker for fraud!” looks laughable considering the Obama administration has essentially attempted to do just that with the Goldman Sachs and FHFA suits. As in every movement, the fringes will remain, but they cannot be allowed to speak equally for the whole if the message is to be viable. Diversity of opinion lends credibility only when linked by a common theory; vaguely linked grievance is just a chorus of grumbling. More than anything, Occupy Wall Street needs to amplify its coherent, reasonable demand. Currently, that goal is drowned out by the shrillness of those crowded in its support. Its legitimacy is undercut by every copy of The Worker’s Vanguard handed out and every indication to the TV cameras that the aggrieved are just a bunch of unwashed kids. This isn’t the case—plenty of people joined the protest after work—but it is imperative to avoid.

Despite the clear goal set out by Adbusters, Occupy Wall Street has become a slush of complaints about unemployment and unfair distribution of wealth. It is the liberal spin on the same concerns that generated the Tea Party, in many ways a model of effective citizenship based on the turnaround from grassroots organizing to legislative power. The first Tea Party convention in February 2010 saw Sarah Palin deliver the keynote address to a crowd of about 600 people. There was easily three times that number on the off-day that I visited Occupy Wall Street. What’s the difference? Aside from the Kochs’ millions, the Tea Party’s message was uncluttered, if ablative: less government. More liberty. The Occupants could generate more than enough solidarity to build upon if they could just get behind their own message. It’s an interesting sentiment surrounding this protest: so many observers desperately want Occupy Wall Street to gestate into something real, yet helplessly watch it suffering the same flailing fate as many a radical demonstration before it. The challenge to OWS’s leadership isn’t demanding that things change, it’s demanding what has to change first. Asserting what that is, turns a protest into a movement.

See Slideshow of Day 14 Occupy Wall Street September 30 2011 by David Shanbkone on Flickr »