One of the biggest strategic and ideological debates among the Occupy protesters is over the idea of demands – more specifically, whether to formulate a set of demands or to simply rally around the idea of “Occupy”. While both sides of this debate have valid arguments, I propose that a clear, coherent and fair set of demands would highly benefit the movement as a whole.
Occupier demands could be focused on both local and national issues, as long there are sufficient numbers of people behind the demands. Ideally there would be a multi-tiered set of demands – local, state, regional, and federal – which could be used to influence politics on every level. Local demands could focus on smaller issues, unique to an area (Occupy Harvard) and focus upon local politics to achieve change. State demands would be formed through agreement by local Occupations and would focus upon shifting policy on the state level, like the Wisconsin labor protests, as well as influencing senatorial/congressional elections. Regional demands would be formed by multiple state occupations such as the Northeast, Rust Belt or West Coast. The largest platform, the federal level, would focus on broad ideals of Occupy and national issues (campaign finance, civil rights, etc.). Each level could act independently of others. Occupy Boston and Occupy LA would have different local issues, but would have a say in the decisions made by higher levels.
The benefits of having demands would be seen in three areas: political impact, creating coalitions and recruitment.
Politics is all about messaging, and a set of demands or goals is necessary to promote a cause. Clear and easily digestible goals – such as ending a war, passing single-payer healthcare, or campaign finance reform – can be used to push politicians towards supporting policies promoted by the Occupiers. If a politician sees the Occupy movement as a well informed and motivated voting bloc, rather than a protest with no unifying goal, they will be far more likely to fear electoral retribution unless they support Occupy demands. Without demands there can be little accountability for politicians who go against the spirit of the Occupations.
A defined set of goals can also be used to create coalitions of support while clarifying the central ideals of the Occupy movement. Clarity of message gives a movement a defined purpose for member’s actions while contributing towards group unity. In addition to internal unity, an organization can more easily create coalitions with other, similar, groups that would otherwise be difficult to form. While it is still up for debate whether the Occupy movement wants to start forming coalitions, this is a necessary step before it even becomes an option. One possible example of such a coalition would be Occupy and worker’s rights organizations. If the Occupy movement were to definitively get behind worker’s rights as a core policy platform, unions and worker protection organizations would be more likely to support Occupy.
A clear set of demands could act as a recruiting tool to garner more support for the Occupy movement. By creating a set of policy demands that the occupiers can point to and say: ”Here is a problem that has harmed you, and this is what we can do to fix it”, whenever somebody asks the goals of the occupations, they can entice others to support and join them. If the Occupiers propose solutions that will benefit the common citizen and begin to rebalance the economic equality scale back towards the people, large numbers of people will respond positively. Large segments of the population have been harmed by the excesses of Wall Street and the corruption of Washington, creating great potential for mass-mobilization by the Occupy movement. Unless we have a clear set of goals, it is unlikely that we will mobilize any but the most motivated and informed citizens.
Without clear demands, increasing recruitment will be difficult as there will always be doubt as to the movement’s endgame. The unifying effects of demands can be seen as analogous to creating a magnetic compass. An iron needle can be magnetized through passing a magnetic field over it. Before it is magnetized, the iron molecules in the needle have magnetic polarities running in every direction, thus the magnetic polarities cancel each other out. When a magnetic field passes over the needle, the polarities align in a single direction and a magnetic compass is created. And just as a magnetic compass doesn’t work when it lacks alignment, a protest won’t work unless the protesters have common goals and demands.