Twelve years ago, on April 16th, the anti-globalization movement held its second mass event. Fresh off the surprising mobilization success of the “Battle of Seattle,” activists set their sights on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in DC. The slogan of #A16 was plain enough: “shut it down.”
I had taken that year off from college to serve as National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC). I wasn’t at the #A16 protests myself, but many of our top activists were. I watched the closely as the event unfolded through the lens of the mainstream media. Seattle had caught our opponents by surprise. DC was Act Two of the movement in the media narrative. The results were… disappointing.
#A16 was a big protest. It was evidence of a growing movement. But there were two big problems. First: they didn’t achieve their goal. In Seattle, movement participants shut down the WTO meetings. In DC, the WB/IMF meetings proceeded on schedule. Second: they lost the message war. What’s more, losing the message war was an unforced error.
Our opponents offered a simple frame: “this is misguided activism. The World Bank and IMF are a force for good in the world.” Our simple counterframe was “Shut It Down!” Given those two messages, which one do you find persuasive? Which one do you think the media and the mass public are likely to accept?*
For years after that, when I would run messaging workshops at Sierra Club/SSC trainings, I would use #A16 as a guiding example. “Sometimes we lose because the other side has more money and more power. I can accept that. But sometimes we lose because the other side outsmarted us. If you believe your cause is just, you should never allow the other side to be outsmart you.”
Fast-forward to the present. Last week, I was meeting up with an old organizing buddy in Manhattan. Pasted to a streetlamp was the poster for Occupy Wall Street’s next major action:
Shut. It. Down.
May 1st might end up being a massive mobilization. But it won’t succeed as a general strike. And opponents of #OWS are no longer going to be caught unaware. They will have counter-messages. They will try to frame Occupy as a rump anarchist crowd, hardly representative of the 99%.
#OWS has made it easier for them to succeed. Just like last time. And, well, that’s just a real shame to see.
*They also had lengthy teach-ins where they explained in detail why the World Bank and IMF don’t live up to their stated mission. Those teach-ins were great. Listen to movement activists for an hour and you quite possibly would have walked away convinced. But listen to them in television, radio, and newspaper quotes and the opposition comes out ahead every time.