OWS: The search for a message

Mary Elizabeth King in Waging Nonviolence:

WDOu1As the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) phenomenon grows, it has been expressing many truths, even while struggling to find a single over-arching message. The search for captions, slogans, and themes that illuminate the changes sought is characteristic of civil resistance campaigns. This is not merely branding, but a way to sharpen the concrete results that can result from such a dramatic outpouring of human aspiration, emotion, energy, protest, and yearning. Some observers have grown impatient with the evolving messaging coming out of OWS, but, historically, slogans have often changed as a campaign proceeds.

In East Germany in 1989, with 13 consecutive Monday-night demonstrations in Leipzig from September 25 to December 18, the largest public assemblies in German history occurred. Surges of demonstrators carrying candles flowed from the Protestant churches of Leipzig and other cities, bidding the government to reform and liberalize. Five million East German citizens eventually participated in these candlelit marches, exerting immense political pressure that led to the crumbling of the communist regime. Throughout that autumn, as I have written elsewhere, the slogan-writers adapted their messages to reflect the changing popular sentiments. In November, chants went from “We want to leave” to “We are staying here.” Other calls asked for popular sovereignty: “We are the people!” (Wir sind das Volk). Eventually, as the hoped-for reunification of East and West Germany increasingly became a possibility, the painted signs proclaimed of the two Germanys, “We are one people!” (Wir sind ein Volk).

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