Protests Work Better With Specific Demands

I’ve gotten emails this week asking me to write something about the spreading series of Occupy Wall Street protests. I really like the design of this Occupy Chicago protester, so I’m using it instead as an illustrative example since alongside its aesthetic characteristics it offers what I see as the big problem with this — “STOP CORPORATE GREED” — is not a demand that the targets of the protest can give in to. When I was in college, I was involved in some actions around the idea of a “living wage” for university employees, but beyond that slogan was some specific dollar figure that someone had calculated somewhere. Consequently, alongside the protests, we had fliers and op-eds and the like about why our proposal was a good one. We tried to get alumni and donors and board members to take a position on the living wage. And we eventually more or less got what we wanted — substantial raises for the university’s lowest paid employees.

One of the targets of the Occupy Chicago protests are the offices of the Chicago branch of the Federal Reserve system. Now as it happens Charlie Evans, the president of the Chicago Fed, has been the most aggressive FOMC member in terms of pushing for more monetary stimulus and more aggressive action to fight joblessness. His speech on the Fed’s need to live up to its dual mandate is one of the best things I’ve heard from a senior American financial policymaker in a long time:

Suppose we faced a very different economic environment: Imagine that inflation was running at 5% against our inflation objective of 2%. Is there a doubt that any central banker worth their salt would be reacting strongly to fight this high inflation rate? No, there isn’t any doubt. They would be acting as if their hair was on fire. We should be similarly energized about improving conditions in the labor market.

Right on. So in terms of what Evans has authority over, he’s on the right side. On the other hand, he’s just not going to end corporate greed, and I really don’t think he has any tools at his disposal with which to do so even if we wanted to. If we rally outside the HQs of the Dallas, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia Feds with signs saying “FISCAL AND MONETARY STIMULUS NOW.” Or perhaps more plausibly “AMERICA NEEDS JOBS.” I’ll cheer. If we do one down by the Eccles Building, I’ll show up. But when the lodestar of your movement is to say, “The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%,” it’s difficult for me to get excited. You have to have a dream scenario in mind. What if the protests are super-popular, the crowds are enormous, and the inconvenience to the high and mighty becomes intolerable? What if the bad guys decide it’s time to consider a surrender? You want them to come out, address the crowd, and do what?


That’s not to say that slogans need to be wonky and boring. “Jobs with justice” is a slogan, not a specific proposal. But (when it works) it’s a slogan that does have some concrete ideas behind it about whose jobs would be impacted and what changes would constitute justice.