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Will the Wall Street Protests Flame Out? A Call for Focused Leadership

October 16, 2011

Updated September 17, 2012

Today’s the one year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Since almost flaming out in the months following the media hoopla, the Occupy movement burst into the open with an attempt on September to block employees from entering the New York Stock Exchange. Some reports claim that we’ll see new activity in the weeks and months ahead. Whether that occurs or not, read my post from last year which emphasizes the importance of focused leadership when it comes to rallying AND sustaining a social movement.

The American Dream is on life support.

I’m all for a good protest – when there’s a focused purpose and leadership that unites.

History is littered with protests.

Whether it was the protests against alcohol consumption in the United States, lead over decades by what became to be known as Prohibitionists, the violent 1919 Winnipeg General Strike or Apartheid protests in South Africa, human beings will stand up when they become sufficiently pissed off, have gathered a critical mass of people and acquired leadership that pulls people towards a shared vision.

And then there are the individual protests. One recent example is Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor who lit himself on fire to protest corruption. His sacrifice lead to what the media delights in calling the “Arab Spring.”

Now we’re witnessing an uprising across the United States, which has spread like wildfire since it started only a month ago. Americans are pissed, whether it’s a family that lost their house and are living in a car under an overpass, an unemployed college grad owing $60,000 in loans, parents who can’t afford their child’s surgery, or a factory worker (part of a dying breed) who holds down a second job to put food on the table.

It’s nasty in the Land of the Free.

Most surprisingly, benign Canada is getting in on the action. Canadians protesting, eh? That’s one for the recent history books, though it seemed they had to get their cue from their much maligned American cousins to the south.

With that said will what’s being called the Wall Street protests (aka Occupying Wall Street) have any staying power?

No, not in my opinion.

Why’s that?

Because the protestors lack focus and leadership.

Yes, the overarching umbrella of discontent is anger at big business greed (notably the financial sector and its naughty deeds), government incompetence and sustained high unemployment (over 45% of unemployed Americans have been so for over six months).

Newsflash: As a retired labor economist of many years, I can assure you that the official unemployment rates espoused by governments are far from reality. Actual, real-life unemployment rates in North America are 40-50 % higher. But then that’s no surprise to most people, is it?

It’s wonderful to see grassroots leadership emerge when there’s a compelling cause. The Arab Spring is a recent example, yet it’s important to understand that the situation in Egypt has deteriorated. The media’s budgie-like attention span ignored the ensuing months after Hosni Mubarak resigned in disgrace. Protesters, who have displayed extraordinary courage and leadership, are increasingly jailed, beaten and perhaps even murdered.

The situation in Syria is even more repressive. Witness the attack by police on peaceful protesters yesterday in Yemen, in which five people were killed and over 50 injured.

Take a moment to read this commentary from on the Occupy Wallstreet protests and how citizens in other countries are perceiving them.

Let’s revisit the Occupying Wallstreet protests as they’re unfolding (where an alleged 900-plus cities worldwide participated). To me, they seem like controlled chaos. Perhaps carnival is an apt description. It’s understandable why Americans are furious with the state of the economy, joblessness and the remuneration of CEOs in the financial sector despite their atrocious incompetence (not to mention their greed) during the financial meltdown. President Obama’s response to the economy has been weak and fumbling.

However, I’m not quite clear what Canadians are whining about. (Check out Occupy Toronto). For Americans who aren’t familiar with what’s been going on in The Great White North, Canada’s economy is the healthiest of the G-8 countries (but still not much to brag about); its unemployment rate lower; its banking system robust and secure; the housing market strong; and the country’s social safety net (along with universal healthcare) much stronger than in America.

Canadian protestors come from a wide spectrum of gripes: opponents of Prime Minister Harper’s new crime legislation, First Nations peoples (continuing their call about the injustices inflicted upon them for over two centuries), anti-capitalists, environmentalists, heavily indebted college students, the unemployed, partiers, shit-disturbers, and the list goes on. A cornucopia of emotional issues.



Nope, on both accounts.

Sure youth unemployment is too high, a valid reason in itself to protest. However, it was too high in the early eighties when inflation was running at double digits. Indeed, when one looks at the joblessness of young African American males in the U.S. and the country’s growing underclass, it’s amazing that the Capital hasn’t been burned to the ground.

Given the state of the U.S. economy, President Obama’s wobbling economic performance and the one-year marathon to the November 2012 election, it will be fascinating to see how Occupying Wall Street influences public debate and how politicians respond. In Canada nothing will change. Prime Minister Harper was recently elected with a strong majority government. He’s a person with huge self-discipline, focus and resolve. His agenda for Canada is laid out before him. Don’t expect protests in Canada to influence public policy. My opinion.

What’s unfortunate with the Wall Street protests is that a core of people who self-initiated and rose up through grassroots leadership, are being swallowed by every nutbar and fringe lunatic who wants to join the party. The tension surrounding the protests, which have spread beyond America to Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Taiwan (plus more countries) is that of potential violence and collateral damage. In Rome yesterday, what were to be peaceful protests suddenly turned violent as masked demonstrators began setting fire to cars.

When violence and damage to public and private property begins, any movement begins to lose its legitimacy. Eventually it will implode upon itself.

Those leading the Occupying Wall Street movement have a huge challenge ahead if they wish to:
a) hold the public’s attention AND respect,
b) build momentum by increasing their numbers of responsible followers,
c) grab the attention of politicians and maintain it while influencing policy.

For those interested in acquiring a view of a labor protest, I highly recommend Emile Zola’s book Germinal, the fascinating yet frightening portrayal of a violent coalminers’ strike in northern France in the 1860s. I read Germinal as a university student almost 40 years ago (for an Industrial Relations course) and have never forgotten it. Check it out.

What’s your view on Occupying Wall Street?

Is the American Dream dying?

All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.

– Mohandas Gandhi

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