The Empty Power of Mere Protest – More on the Occupy Movement

Yesterday, I shared a quote from C.S. Lewis, to illustrate some of my fears about joining radical protesting groups like the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party. Today let me deal with a second problem: the empty power of mere protest. One thing I love about our generation, is that we really do want to see the world change. When we see a problem we “raise awareness”, which means tweeting, facebooking, walking barefoot and, if we’re really extreme, showing up to the occasional rally or protest. Too often, however, we merely protest and stop there. What can mere protest actually change? Very little. Protesting should be a means to an end – it should clearly identify a problem and lead us to actual solutions – real life actions and real life changes.

The Occupy Movement, I fear, is doing little but protesting – since there is no clear problem or solution. Here’s the closest thing to a mission statement I found in their materials:

The beauty of this new formula, and what makes this novel tactic exciting, is its pragmatic simplicity: we talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies … we zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future … and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen.

What does the Occupy Movement do? First, they get together, then they talk to each other about the problems they see, then they zero in one problem, and finally they protest. How does their protesting lead to real change? I’m not quite sure. The only real action step is protesting. What seems to matter most is not real change, but real protest.

(Also notice, that a shared value doesn’t draw them together, instead they draw together to determine their shared values).

As I listen to news reports by groups like Democracy Now, I hear them compare the Occupy Movement to the Civil Rights Movement. I also hear Occupiers call themselves the greatest protest since the Civil Rights Movement. I wish they were more like the Civil Right’s Movement, but  they bare no true resemblance.

The Civil Rights movement had a clear vision: to end segregation and achieve equal rights for every human being regardless of his or her race. Martin Luther King Jr.’s demands were clear, cohesive, well-planned, reasoned, persuasive, and achievable.

The Occupy Movement lacks a clear, cohesive vision. Their demands are difficult to connect. Here at Columbia’s Occupy Movement, I saw signs for ending world hunger, ending pollution, ending corporate greed, stopping government hand-outs, ending war and creating jobs. Does anyone else feel confused? Even their most central issue – corporate greed – is challenging to untangle. No one’s clarified what qualifies a company as greedy, or how we end greediness.

The Civil Rights activists did not merely protest – they had well-reasoned plans for action and their actions always connected to their demands. They broke the unjust laws they protested by sitting in segregated restaurants. They boycotted industries (like public transportation) that oppressed them at great personal and public cost, until those industries changed. They worked with actual politicians, and used their voting power to elect politicians who eventually passed the 24th amendment, and overturned “separate but equal.”

The Occupy Movement lacks a well-reasoned plan for action. They’re methods are disconnected from their demands. They want us to raise awareness about corporate greed by tweeting… from the cell phones made and powered by the “evil” corporate giants they’re protesting. The only real action commended in their mission statement is to “talk to each other in various physical gatherings [to] . . .  zero in on what our one demand will be.” After that? Protest. If that’s it, then the Occupy Movement is just a social club for people who like picketing.

Mere protest has no power. If all we do is march and yell about why everyone else should march and yell, then all we’ll have is a lot of marching and yelling.

I deeply admire the passion, exuberance and energy behind this movement. Yet, I want to see less mouthes and more hands. Study for a law degree, or an economics degree to understand the issue more clearly. Work with Capital Hill not just Wall Street. Donate money to organizations that offer job training, language training, and physical relief to the most needy of the 99%. Instead of occupying Wall Street, occupy a soup kitchen or occupy a community-center tutoring program. Don’t just protest as part of the 99%, meet and serve some of the bottom 33%.

Commitment to social justice means doing more than mere protest.

The Occupy Movement is a parable of my own heart. Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas. 1:22).  As Christians it’s easy to “raise awareness” about the gospel, and deceive ourselves into thinking we’ve sufficiently lived out God’s word. We relieve our sense of guilt for disobeying God’s word by proclaiming it. I know I struggle with this! Thankfully, Christ promises to occupy our hearts with the Holy Spirit. to help us move past hearing, and start doing.


About Patrick K. Miller

Currently I am living in Columbia serving at the University of Missouri with Veritas, The Crossing's campus ministry. In December 2010 I graduated from Mizzou with a degree in English Literature. My beautiful wife, Emily, works is an Interior Designer with a local firm. I like espresso, 30 Rock, and books. My favorite old dead guys are John Owen, Augustine and Francis Schaeffer. You should read something by them.
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2 Responses to The Empty Power of Mere Protest – More on the Occupy Movement

  1. TK says:

    Actually, if you had read further than the excerpt you quoted from the original Occupy Wall Street post from AdBusters, you would have seen this:

    “The most exciting candidate that we’ve heard so far is one that gets at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy: we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington. It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we’re doomed without it.”

    They do have a clear demand. It just got lost amongst all the other problems in our world. The movement as it stands now, I would agree does not have a clear vision. But originally, there was a clear demand (although vague in how to go about achieving this change). I’m not arguing what your point is, because it is a good one, I just had to inform you that there is a unified demand…. even though hardly anyone knows it.

    • Patrick K. Miller says:

      You make an excellent point. I read a piece in the New Yorker about how OWS began, and the initial instigators of the protest did make some semi-clear demands. Those demands, however, are dismally cloudy. The quote you offer is good, but it’s mostly rhetoric. They want Obama to do something, but can you tell what it is? Do they want to end campaign contributions? How will Americans learn about different options? How will Americans voice their opinions? Does OWS want to end corporate contributions? Well, isn’t Adbusters a type of corporation, using it’s financial resources to throw its weight around? Saying end “corpratocracy” sounds cool, but what in the world does that actually entail? It’s all either foggy or inconsistent.

      Moreover, their leadership style – anyone has the right to speak or disagree about anything at any time – caused the problem that you aptly address, namely that they lack a coherent vision. Whatever ideas began this protest were lost early on. And that’s my point, their method is powerless and meaningless – especially when people don’t come to the table with shared values (they seem to come to the table, and then figure out their values).

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