No mob has ever changed the course of history. I’m sure we can all point out some famous mobs, but if you look beyond rabble, there is always a smart person or organization who knows how to use and manipulate the mob in order to make it an agent of change. French people organized in the streets a lot, and it took a Robespierre to turn them into a revolution. Angry poor white people have been ridiculously pissed off since the Civil Rights movement, and it took a Grover Norquist to turn that passion into an anti-tax platform that’s against the economic interest of the very mob that advocates it.
For the last two weeks, the Occupy Wall Street people have been a mob — a leaderless, unfocused, and harmless mob. They’re not even violent. And so they are (for some) easy to dismiss, ignore, and deride.
The lawyers in the audience should be thankful for that. Because if this collection of people could get their act together, they wouldn’t be occupying Wall Street. They’d be occupying K Street. They’d be occupying First Street. They’d be sitting in the lobby of the Lipstick Building or the Death Star asking questions of the people who help “the banks” get around any regulation the overmatched SEC can come up with.
The Occupy Wall Street people have no frame of reference; they’re like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know… look, they’re just out of their element….
Building a grassroots movement is hard — unless you are like the Tea Party and your movement is “astroturfed” by corporate sponsors. For most everybody else, building a movement takes years of inglorious work by a cadre of dedicated individuals. Successful ones (and let’s think about the Civil Rights movement as the most successful grassroots movement in American history) start small, and attack the system where it is weakest. Do you know how much planning went into Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on the bus?
I’ll tell you who doesn’t know that: the Occupy Wall Street protesters. They think they can just show up one day, pissed off, and get something done. That’s the heart of this movement. Much has been made of their catchall list of demands, but really you can simplify all of it to “we want things to NOT suck.”
Why do things suck? They have no idea. Who can make things suck less? “Somebody!” Again, this isn’t the preferred response from a group dedicated to making lasting change.
The problem is highlighted by the 99 Percent people and the other student debtors joining in the protest. We’ve heard talk that there are even some law students at area schools who are thinking of joining in with the protest. That would be the height of hypocrisy.
Obviously, I’m the guy who thinks that student debt is a crushing problem that is hobbling a generation of young people. To say that I’m aware of the issue is a gross understatement. But this problem has nothing to do with Wall Street. Schools charge high tuition even in the face of limited job prospects for graduates, the government won’t allow student loans to be discharged through the normal bankruptcy process, the banks only loan the money because the government guarantees most of it — and these kids think that i-bankers on Wall Street are the problem?
And how many of the kids protesting on Wall Street wouldn’t be there at all if they could get a JOB on Wall Street? See, that’s where real liberals and progressives are dismissive of these protesters. It’d be a joke for a law student to be a part of these protests, because if Goldman Sachs brought them on as an in-house counsel, they’d take the job today. You show me a 99 Percenter, and I’ll show you a kid who would do public relations for Halliburton faster than you can say “the name is KBR.”
Even if you strip away the hypocrites and just looked at the people who are really, passionately opposed to the behavior of our financial sector, you’d be looking at people who haven’t done their homework.
We’re living under the yoke of arguably the most pro-business Supreme Court ever, and they’re occupying Wall Street. Lobbyists are rolling back Dodd-Frank before it’s even implemented, and they’re occupying Wall Street. Your average U.S. Congressman can’t spell “mid tranche structured note,” much less identify one if it was sitting right on their desk, and they’re occupying Wall Street. These protesters don’t understand the country that they’re living in.
And they’re not willing to put in the work to find out. The world is complicated. It takes a certain amount of work and study to even figure out what the hell is happening, much more to figure out who to blame, and it’s as likely as not that the last person who knew how to fix it just died.
Does that mean these protesters should do nothing? I don’t think so. I think it means that these protesters should learn more. Somebody needs to go down there with books, and research papers, and copies of The Economist. And instead of marching and chanting, everybody down there needs to take a day or two to sit and read.
Instead of vainglorious demonstrations in front of our symbols of wealth and power, maybe these people can take a run at something that really determines how money gets distributed in this country.
In a way, watching these protests is kind of like watching America stumble around with a Cold War army in a post-Cold War world. The world is too complicated now for a march “on” something. It doesn’t matter anymore “where” the decisions are made. It’s about small groups of people, often working in secret, deciding which rules and regulations are going to make the most amount of money for themselves and their clients. It’s about what happens when the cameras aren’t watching.
Maybe these Occupy Wall Street people can turn into one of those groups. Like the way the NAACP Legal Defense Fund used to be. Like the Southern Poverty Law Center tries to be. Groups that change the application of our laws and regulations one case at a time through unyielding effort, intelligence, and argument.
But right now, they’re just a mob. And being a mob is easy. Being an agent of change is hard. And so far I don’t think that these kids have the stomach to do what is hard.