I experienced a humorous example of mixed messaging while marching down K Street today – Day 3 of Take Back the Capitol. Literally at the same time, right next to me, march organizers were chanting “Off the sidewalks, into the streets!” while orange-vested crowd control marshals exhorted us to “Get off the street. Stay on the sidewalk.” The marchers around me appeared visibly confused as to where they should be.
Take Back the Capitol’s message has been relatively simple and straightforward as these things go, and consistent; basically reminding Congress they should represent the 99 percent, not the 1 percent and corporate lobbyists. And the media has consistently used the same words to describe that message: TBTC “borrows the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street.” Obama has been credited with borrowing it too, as have others. More than the Tea Party ever did, OWS has demonstrably made a lot of Americans use different words to talk about politics, which to me is the most hopeful thing about this whole movement: Words represent thoughts, so when you use different words, it means you’ve already begun to think in a different way. Which makes you act differently.
Okay, it can be the other way around too, I suppose, in terms of causality. But you don’t (by analogy) lift yourself out of depression by “thinking happy thoughts;” you do it by going out with your friends to have a good time, which makes you feel better, and then the happy thoughts arrive more or less on their own; action precedes and precipitates a new mindset, which then leads to different action. That’s what OWS is doing.
Talking out of both sides of your mouth
For all the media’s recognition of message congruity, however, its own language seeks to downplay the significance of that message, reflecting a dismissive attitude even as it tries to sound like it’s lending credence to TBTC. I use the word “lending” deliberately; what you lend, you can take back. TBTC is merely “borrowing” the rhetoric, as though it didn’t really belong to us, despite the fact that unions (including SEIU, part of the TBTC coalition and a supporter of OWS) have been saying many of the same things for years.
One could thus argue that it’s OWS who’s “borrowing the rhetoric” of unions, but that’s not a point I’m trying to make. Besides, the bulk of TBTC is comprised of OWS movements from all over the country, which means they’re “borrowing” their own language. Either way, I don’t really care who said it first; I care that more people are saying it now. Besides, it’s just “rhetoric” anyway, a word that implies style without substance.
Cut to the action
Today about 3,000 activists from both TBTC and Occupy DC marched through downtown Washington. As DK contributor overclocking commented on my first report, K Street may well be more symbolic than real as the hub of Beltway lobbyist intrigue. But TBTC’s rhetoric got heard all the same; marching from near the Washington Monument to 16th & K, we disrupted traffic on the streets and in Metro stations for blocks all around. Cars honked in support, working people watched and waved from office building windows. CNN was there, so was NPR and other national media.
It rained not heavily but steadily almost the entire time, which dampened the crowd’s clothes but not its enthusiasm. At its apex, marchers filled the entire intersection of 16th and K Streets shoulder to shoulder and much of the asphalt all the way down to 14th, where Occupy DC activists got themselves arrested by lying down in the street; as they were carted away, more activists lay down to take their place in a kind of revolving civil disobedience. Substance with style.
So maybe it makes me jaded to say it was, at a certain level, just like so many other huge marches and demonstrations. We made a lot of noise, stopped the traffic, made our point, some got arrested, and we headed back to camp. Again, I refer you to #99indc on Twitter for a blow-by-blow account with photos and video.
(Later -- just a couple hours ago as I write this -- TBTC activists descended upon a Newt Gingrich fundraiser at the Willard Hotel. Last night we did the same at an Eric Cantor fundraiser, as well as the Congressional Christmas tree lighting ceremony.)
And yet, today’s action was different. TBTC got national media notice in a matter of days, largely, I believe, precisely because it was “borrowing the rhetoric” of OWS. That rhetoric has resonance now across a broad swath of the American public, a remarkable accomplishment for a movement that itself only took a couple of weeks to hit the national spotlight. Today Time Magazine named OWS the top US news story of 2011. (http://www.time.com/...)
Do actions speak louder than words? Or is the pen really mightier than the sword? Can we have it both ways? We’ll know when we get off the street and back on the sidewalk. Or is it the other way around?