Occupy Wall Street began with a simple idea: occupy Wall Street. By sitting, camping, sleeping at what many Americans still see as the symbolic scene of the crimes–both moral and legal–that led to the 2008 financial collapse, the message was clear. It was an act of civil disobedience that pointed the finger at the rich guys in suits. The permanence of the encampment also provided a physical rallying point, so that others could join the movement. As such, the original idea for Occupy can be judged as among the most elegant protests in recent years, the kind of thing that Steve Jobs could love for its simplicity. Its methods were its message. It naturally invited newcomers.
Now compare the original idea with what happened this week. Bridges across the country were disrupted at rush hour on Thursday. Streets were blocked to prevent people from going to work. Fights broke out with police, after protesters charged or removed established barricades. What was the message of these new methods? That commuting is wrong? That police are the enemy? That other people should be inconvenienced because some are upset? If the original Occupy was an iPhone, yesterday was a Palm Pilot, riddled with bugs, outdated technology and inconvenience. If you want to represent the 99%, the last thing you want to do is mess with the commute.
(PHOTOS: Occupy Protesters March on Manhattan)
Perhaps the most striking thing about the less coherent civil disobedience on Thursday was the central role that established progressive groups played. These were not protests that had been planned simply by amateur activists in general assemblies. They were organized both by the occupation groups and the broad coalition of labor, environmental and progressive organizations that has been trying to magnify the Occupy message. Take a look at this Chicago Tribune photo of protesters in matching blue jackets blocking the LaSalle Street bridge. Occupy protesters don’t wear matching blue jackets. These appear to be protesters organized by Van Jones’ American Dream movement, which long ago adopted the “Jobs Not Cuts” slogans that are printed on the jackets.
The progressive groups originally picked the Nov. 17 date as a way of putting pressure on the Congressional Supercommittee, hoping they could harness some of the Occupy energy for a clear policy fight. A march on Congress might have done that. Even disrupting political fundraisers, as some activists did in D.C. on Thursday, by crashing a breakfast with Sens. John Kyl and Orrin Hatch, might have sent the message.
Videos like this might still turn off a large part of the country–and broad bipartisan swath of diners who like to eat their eggs in peace–but the law bending/breaking tactics would at least be on message. The same cannot be said for scenes like this that dominated cable news all day yesterday from Zuccotti Park.
Police barricades are good target if you want to topple the police. But the American people like the police, when they behave responsibly, and the American people generally like the police having barricades, when the barricades prevent traffic from being blocked and allow workers to go to their jobs. The latter footage is not the sort that will win the movement many more fans.