For weeks now, mainstream media outlets, and some in the movement itself, have struggled with one pervading question about the Occupy Wall Street protesters who began gathering in Zuccotti Square on September 17: What do they want?
It’s very clear, after all, what they don’t want: That is, they don’t want the economic or social status quo to continue unabated.
But now, there may be something approaching consensus emerging, at least via the movement’s Tumblr blog and guerrilla PR team.
On Sunday, prolific ecofinance blogger and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal, aka Rortybomb, posted an eye-opening analysis of the movement’s ideology based entirely on the wording of protesters’ signs that appear in the Tumblr blog’s photos.
Konczal explained his methdology as follows:
“I created a script designed to read all of the pages and parse out the html text on the site. It doesn’t read the images (can anyone in the audience automate calls to an OCR?), just the html text. After collecting all the text on all the pages, the code then goes through it to try to find interesting points.”
What he found was indeed interesting, even heartbreaking. Konczal extrapolates:
The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.
The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay. They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share. The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy. There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor - very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.” It’s straight out of antiquity - free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.
Still, while Occupy Wall Street’s basic message may be one that everyone can sympathize with, the movement’s media-savvy are aware of the problem they’ve had in organizing their sometimes disparate thoughts into a cohesive platform.
“We need to make sure our message is consistent, clear and not muddled,” said Ed Needham, a Cambridge, Mass.-based communications consultant Democratic blogger who has joined the Occupy Wall Street Press and Public Relations working group, one of the movement’s relatively newer skills-based sub-groups. “That’s why the press team was started, to help prepare people - some of whom have had no experience speaking to the media - on how to effectively communicate their messages.”
While focused on ending the perceived evils of Wall Street and the “one percent,” the wealthiest, and, by extension, most powerful members of society, the protesters’ specific views cross the political spectrum, from Ron Paul-supporting libertarians to self-declared socialists and communists.
“The organized labor groups and progressive organizations who have come out to support us are here as individuals, and they aren’t necessarily representative of everyone” Needham added, “The main reason we’re here is to bring all of us together to say ‘the system can’t continue the way it is.’ It is an intrinsically flawed system, built for the one percent.”
And yet, as he pointed out to TPM in an interview Saturday, the mainstream media has often made interpretive leaps in its coverage that completely ignore the protesters’ iterative process of generating their platform.
A document posted on the Occupy Wall Street website on Sept. 25, during the second week of the occupation, by one member, entitled “Proposed List Of Demands For Occupy Wall St Movement! (User Submitted),” was picked up by several mainstream outlets, including Fox News, and misreported to be an official outline of what the movement’s adherents seek, prompting the Occupy Wall Street webmasters to update with a clarification:
“This is not an official list of demands. This is a forum post submitted by a single user and hyped by irresponsible news/commentary agencies like Fox News and Mises.org. This content was not published by the OccupyWallSt.org collective, nor was it ever proposed or agreed to on a consensus basis with the NYC General Assembly. There is NO official list of demands.”
“That was an early example of how we were still finding a way to control the message,” Needham told TPM. “But we’re here peddling one currency: The currency of truth. And it’s true that we’re growing faster almost than our ability to control these things, but that’s good.”
Correction: This post originally stated the incorrect date for when the “Proposed List of Demands” document was posted. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.