I’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street movement since it started in New York on September 17th.  In the early days, coverage outside of Occupy Wall Street’s own website was virtually non-existent, dismissed by the media.  The major networks were no where to be found, and even local coverage was sparse.  It wasn’t until a video of a police supervisor pepper spraying peaceful protestors went viral did the media finally wake up.

After that video, the movement began to rapidly grow, with thousands of protestors active in lower Manhattan and sympathetic groups popping up in other cities.  Unions and celebrities have now joined as the protest movement has gotten traction.

Occupy Wall Street, different from some other protest movements in recent years, is truly grass roots.  Unlike the Tea Party movement that sprung up after Barack Obama was elected president, Occupy Wall Street is not fueled by corporate money and a major television network, but by individuals.  Oh, Tea Party supporters continue to claim their protests were grass roots, and surely some participants joined due to their own anger at having an African-American president in the White House, but the protests were not sustainable.  The demonstrations were large only because of big money backing from Fox News and other partisan organizations, all staffed by professional strategists, and the momentum created by their publicity campaigns has now died off since the backers of the Tea Party have accomplished their real goal of dominating the Republican Party with political extremists doing their bidding; the street protesters in lawn chairs are no longer needed as pawns.

How can you tell if a movement is grass roots and genuine?  Several ways…People get themselves there and then stay.  They don’t bring guns to the demonstrations. They can articulate why they are there.  Politicians are slow to support them, and the media tries to ignore them.  Police beat, pepper spray, and arrest them. The movement grows only by grass roots inspiration and tenacity.  Using these criteria, let’s compare the Tea Party, an astroturf movement, to Occupy Wall Street, a genuine grass roots movement:

From the very first moments of its life, the Tea Party was formed over a fake issue, high taxes.  Even though taxes are at their lowest level since the 1950s, Tea Partiers complained of record high taxes that didn’t exist.  That false notion was peddled on a continuous basis through very sophisticated messaging communicated by professional PR folks paid by huge budgets from organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.  Xenophobia and bigotry were used to fuel the fake outrage, all while the myth was peddled that the movement was “non-partisan” when it was anything but.  Fox News spent millions promoting protests while people were bused in to swell their numbers.  Some idiots openly carrying guns were welcomed and glorified as they brandished their weapons for the cameras and were ignored by the police.  Once the highly orchestrated protests, complete with appearances by cable news personalities and Republican politicians were completed, everyone was bused home in time for dinner.  That’s called astroturf.

Unlike astroturfing, movements like Occupy Wall Street are genuine.  The protestors’ numbers start small.  They sleep in public parks to occupy territory; and they stay since they have little or nothing to lose.  Also, in grass roots movements, rather than getting out in front of protestors early on, politicians hide and pretend the protests aren’t happening.  Local governments send in riot police to intimidate and sometimes brutally abuse participants.  The brutality increases as numbers swell.  Any perceived infraction of a law is punished with immediate excessive force, and entire neighborhoods are sometimes cordoned off.  As in this particular movement, the networks ignore the protests until they are too large to ignore, and then human rights groups, unions and celebrities join in.  In the end, when supporting a protest is risk free, the politicians jump in front of the cameras to extol the values of the protestors and take credit for supporting them.

I don’t know if these protests are sustainable.  No one watching the protests during the Arab Spring knew in the beginning if they would be successful, either.  What I can tell at this point, though, is that the monied interests and politicians are nervous as the movement continues to gain traction and garner international attention.  The talking heads at Fox News and talk radio are now in full-throated roar, complete with denigrating name calling and the usual communist, fascist, socialist labeling.  Glenn Beck has even jumped into the fray with his usual apocalyptic rhetoric including nonsensical gas chamber metaphors.

One thing is certain about this movement, though.  Millions of disaffected people who have watched government grind to a halt and businesses thrive have had no real voice as money has completely taken our political process hostage and the middle class has continued to shrink.  For the first time in decades, this movement has begun to give voice to that frustration.  People driven by a common purpose can be powerful.

The politicians should be paying very close attention.





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