At its inception, it was easy to dismiss the Occupy Wall Street protest as a bunch of hippies doing what hippies always do: spend too much time in a park. When a volunteer medic reported that one of the most common injuries afflicting protesters were blisters from excessive bongo playing, it merely confirmed skeptics’ stereotypes. But that was before the police resorted to pepper spray, before the protests spread to dozens of cities across North America, and before it became evident that these weren’t just leftist activists who felt all of America should be run like their local organic vegetable co-op. “Not a hippie, just another poor factory worker,” read one sign at a spinoff protest in Rochester, N.Y. There were also airline pilots and unionists, retirees and truck drivers. Occupy Wall Street doesn’t represent the fringe but the mainstream of society. The business community may disagree with the demonstrators’ objectives and reject their demands, but it is perilous to treat Occupy Wall Street as a sideshow.
Of course, the protesters have not made it easy to engage in a serious debate. As Bruce Philp argues in this issue, Occupy Wall Street was a brand before it had a goal. Philp doubts the protests will accomplish much. But even if the rallies dwindle and the buzz subsides, that doesn’t make them meaningless.
For business, the protests are a warning against growing too distant from their clients, customers and employees. As professors Hari Bapuji and Suhaib Riaz recently wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “The demonstrators are asserting they are stakeholders in American business, and they’re correct…businesses would do well to accept that fact and engage with the protesters, rather than trying to demonize or dismiss them.” Successful businesses do this every day—listen to their customers and respond to their concerns. Many of the banks now being vilified in downtown streets built their wealth on these simple principles. Seems the time has come to revisit their roots.
If business can learn something from Occupy Wall Street, then so can the rest of us. Frequent comparisons have been made between the current protests and the moment in the 1978 film Network when Peter Finch’s character declares, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” What commentators tend to forget is there’s a whole movie that comes after that famous outburst. It’s only a small improvement to go from complaining alone in front of the TV to complaining outside as part of a large group. Some contend that this airing of grievances is enough. “It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation,” wrote The New York Times. “That’s the job of the nation’s leaders.” This sort of thinking —let’s wait for the politicians to solve it— has prolonged the economic crisis. The current protests show people have decided they can no longer wait for politicians to fix their problems. Organizers predict Occupy Wall Street will soon splinter into smaller movements with concrete proposals. This would be a welcome evolution. The protesters could learn something from investor Warren Buffett, who has become a vocal advocate for higher tax rates for the richest Americans. Buffett may be part of wealthiest 1% of society against whom the protesters rail, but he is also doing their job for them.