OK, I admit it. I’m a bit fascinated by the Occupy Wall Street bunch.
They’ve been going now for about four weeks – and going, and going, and going, like an Energizer bunny with a cardboard sign.. Admittedly, the message has sometimes been more varied than a Whitman’s Sampler, but for sheer endurance and visibility, it’s become impressive. Some of their slogans have even become mass memes, especially the famous “We are the 99 percent” – a statement which, if taken literally, includes quite a few affluent people, but never mind.
But there’s an element of rubbernecking, too. It’s a little like watching a car hit the curve at 90 mph. A curve that hides a broken bridge.
The power’s impressive. But does the driver know what to do next?
I’m not sure yet.
Don’t get me wrong. Public protest and demonstration has a long, strong history in American society. It’s how a lot of people have taken their first steps beyond “just voting.” Done right, it can bring people to think about issues they never would have contemplated before.
But the best movements don’t stop with talk.
There’s a critical point, where discontent can either take new territory or descend into grumbles. Where you either take the next step, or decide you’ve done everything you need to do and sit back down – assuming you knew what you wanted to do in the first place. Where passion either drives, or sputters.
We’ve seen both, not all that long ago.
In 2008, Democrats organized as never before for Barack Obama. They spoke, they agitated, they coordinated and ultimately they won. And then, having won, many – not all, but many – decided they’d achieved their goal and sat down, feeling nothing more was needed from them.
Around the same time, we saw the Tea Party movement start to get off the ground. Love them or hate them (and I know folks on both sides), it’s impossible to deny their drive. They’ve yelled. They’ve organized. They’ve pushed for their goals and then kept right on pushing.
If that comparison makes you uncomfortable, step back to the ‘50s and ’60s instead, with Dr. King. His marches led somewhere, and not just to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a stirring speech. His mark lasted, long after the syllables faded – and not by chance.
Perseverance. Dedication. Even a bit of obsession.
That’s the difference between a protest and a movement.
And it’s what will decide if OWS is a lasting influence or a flash in the pan.
Right now, I don’t know. But I’ll be interested to see what happens.
Occupying a park is the easy part. To occupy a consciousness, a society, a place in history – that’s harder. Harder still to be one that’s worth lasting.
That is where the work truly begins.
Ninety-nine percent of it, anyway.