Un-Occupied Chicago

It’s finally over in Chicago:  No more NATO summit, no more Occupy protesters. I breathed a sigh of relief today as I realized Chicago was Un-Occupied. Sunday, protesters clashed with Chicago cops, refusing to disperse a few blocks west of McCormick Place. A few injuries and some arrests later (worn like a badge of honor, I’m sure), and immediately we saw Facebook hysteria about cop brutality against the Occupiers, saw some videos flying around depicting police brutality that weren’t even shot in Chicago. And as the incarcerated protesters straggled out of jail after being released, without fail they whined about their arrests being a classic case of police abuse of power and misconduct. Plotting against the Obama campaign headquarters, storming the building, and tossing bottles of urine at cops – entirely irrelevant. And for the record, when protesters decide to protest with American flags turned upside down . . . they lose a segment of support, including mine. Sometimes I wonder if they’re not being funded by the Tea Party, whose mission is to make progressives look bad. Occupy has proudly accepted that torch.

We talked about the Occupy “movement” on our radio show, the Mad Women of Politics Anonymous, Sunday night, and Kimberley Irvin and I were joined by some seasoned, long-time activists – 60′s activists. As one of them noted, if the Occupiers can’t articulate a coherent message in less than 5 minutes, they’re out. As another noted, they haven’t been able to articulate a coherent message in over a year.

I mixed and mingled with the protesters for a week in Chicago, and despite the fact that they began to seriously annoy me by about Tuesday, I have to admit Occupy puts on a really good show. Very theatrical, very dramatic, very staged.  They have some nice, homespun folksy songs, they dress up and do little skits – quite skilled at performing. They’ve got their secret hand signals - very 007.  They’ve probably got what it takes to be good at something:  The creativity and energy of youth, some “elders” to lend an experienced voice, an ability to garner attention, name recognition. Police records, of which they’re undeniably proud. They were digging the limelight, but it was disturbingly non-inclusive:  The message was, stand back and watch our smoke. Occupy wasn’t eliciting crowd participation or inviting the crowd to join in any more than the audience is invited to step on stage and ad lib during a theatrical production. Like theatre, Occupy has a very self-centered, insular tone. Like theatre, there are actors and observers. I’ve been to a boatload of liberal protests, but unlike others, there’s something about Occupy that makes people step back, not forward. It wasn’t a protest as much as it was a production.

I’ve got a news flash for Occupy: Protests are not about the protesters, protests are about the issues. Protests are not about activists, protests are about effecting change by numbers.  Protests are, by definition, a large number of people engaged in like-minded thinking to effect a specific change. Look at the Wisconsin protests, which should be a benchmark for Occupy:  They have organization, a singular, articulate message, and the ability to stay on point.

Since Occupy has leaped to life, they’ve tried – through their nationwide protesting – to convince the nation they’re “agents of change” . . . but as far as that goes, forget about it. Whatever promise they showed at the outset, whatever emotions they ginned up, the core Occupy group has proven itself to be lightweights. They’re a small-town theatre group trying to get to Broadway.

I noticed this grandstanding, egocentric tone to Occupy as they romped around outside my office building during the NATO summit. They put on their show, they hammed for the cameras, they posed for photo ops, played a little cat and mouse with the (very accommodating and tolerant) Chicago cops, but as far as real integration with the crowd – nope.  In the end, when the curtain went down, they returned to their insular group of fellow Occupiers and moved on to a new venue.

Welcome to show biz.

To be effective protesters, well, a little bit of knowledge and being well-informed goes a long way. But many of the sound bites of the protesters on local Chicago news clips were cringe-worthy in their lack of sophistication. Occupy protesters seemed to march to the beat of their own drummer, their way or their other way. And as far as lending support to other, local protests, driven by activists who aren’t “Occupy,” such as the anti-war protest held at Prudential Plaza – yeah, that’s a big forget-about-it too.

My takeaway was the same takeaway I had at the beginning, when Occupy first sprang to life:  Largely unimpressed.  And what’s worse, they’ve achieved name recognition, they’ve gotten some media hype, and they’ve wasted the opportunity, the energy, to effect any change at all.  A list of their accomplishments?  They’ll have to get back to us on that.

I listened to the patchwork quilt of causes they endorsed or opposed, and, like a patchwork quilt, there was a little bit of this and a little bit of that and nothing really blended.  It’s like a really bad play where Act I is about romance and Act II is about horticulture.  Keystone Pipeline?  As protest topics go, it was nice for a dramatic theme.  The 1% versus the 99%?  Yeah, I think Wall Street is still greedy.  The rich getting rich and poor getting poorer?  Great keynote, since time immemorial. Their wish list of presidential qualities, which they apparently believe – given their incessant Obama-bashing and efforts to storm his campaign headquarters – President Obama doesn’t possess? Yeah, the Tea Party did that already; it’s old news.

No focus, no leadership, no coherent message. A desire to usurp anyone who might steal their thunder. Narcissistic self-promotion at the expense of the “cause.”

As Andrew Young, a former strategist for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “There’s a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement.  This is an emotional outcry. The difference is organization and articulation.”

And maturity.  A Chicago cop I talked to watched closely as Occupy protesters took apples out of a bag. “What are they doing with those,” he wondered aloud.  It turned out they were eating them, but look – if cops have to wonder if you, as a supposedly serious activist, are going to eat an apple or lob it at something (or someone), the delivery of your “message” needs some serious work.

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Photos: Julie Driscoll