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Occupy's Major Message Misfire: Banks, Not Ports

Posted: 12/13/11 08:28 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- The Occupy Wall Street message has been effective. They initially chose the right common enemy. The banks and bank bailouts angered not just the student demonstrators. The banks and financial giants generated anger among home owners, those who owe more than their homes are worth, millions who have lost their homes, or watched bank bailouts, or saw their jobs eliminated or threatened by the subsequent recession. Targeting the banks and government bailouts was an effective common theme.

But for a second time, Occupy demonstrators have targeted West Coast ports. A total media misfire. Ports are not banks. They provide jobs to minorities, and independent contractors. The demonstrations alienated union dock workers and teamsters delivering containers, and muddled their primary message. Worse, the demonstrations closed the West Coast's leading job-generating export, the port of Oakland. They were unable to stop work at the primary import ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The Occupy movement, or those who participated in effort to close down West Coast ports violated several of Saul Alinksy's direct action rules: First, find a message and persist. Second, don't alienate your base; find a common enemy that unites the community. Third, if you're going to conduct a symbolic demonstration, target the most guilty, not the most accessible. Fourth, don't cause rifts in the movement - an action must be transparent and draw consensus. Finally, your primary goal must be to turn public opinion in your favor through effective symbolic demonstration.

Let's evaluate the ports action. First, don't alienate your base, in this case, affected port workers and those who identify with blue collar workers. There are a total of 5,734 trucks registered at the Port of Oakland, according to Chief Wharfinger Chris Peterson. Many of these truck drivers missed out on essential daily wages during the port shut down.

Peterson conveyed the reaction of an independent trucker named James, who declined to give his last name, and works at the port of Oakland every day. He said a shutdown will simply back up the work for later in the week.

"Right now I work 11 to 13 hours a day, but I will have to work 14 hours," James purportedly said.

The Teamsters Union, which is the largest transportation union in the country and has publicly supported the Occupy protesters in the past, did not support the December 12 port shutdown.

"If they shut down the port, then the truck drivers are not going to be working and they won't get paid. The longshoremen who operate the cranes -- they get paid whether the port is open or not," explained Doug Bloch, the political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7 in Oakland. "It's one thing to camp out on City Hall and it's another thing to shut down global trade. We're in support of going after the one percent, but we need to protect the 99 percent too," said Bloch.

Second, choose the right target for demonstration. "Export Products, Not Jobs" read one sign held at the Oakland port demonstration. But the Port of Oakland is one of the leading export ports on the West Coast. Roughly 57% of Oakland cargo represents U.S. exports, including farm products from the Central Valley. To protest imports, the logical target would be the Southern California ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach. Those ports were hardly affected by demonstrators because the container terminals there are scattered over miles of waterfront within the massive San Pedro harbor. Oakland was easily disrupted, but was the wrong target.

Next, demonstrations should unite, not split the movement. Based on posts at the Occupy Wall Street website, the port demonstrations have caused a rift.

Examples: From TechD: "It caused several of us to leave Occupy Seattle... the message was good... until this crap happened in California...All they did was hurt the workers, and that is sad..."

From TechJunkie: "They're hourly workers. They missed shifts. They did not get paid. This movement cost workers money. Shutting down the port made it harder for members of the 99% to feed their kids."

Dozens of others question the port action.

And finally, to be effective, demonstrations should rally the general populace.

Yet, on the same day of the port demonstrations, Gallup released a major poll. An overwhelming 64 percent of people surveyed said big government was the biggest threat to the country, compared to just 26 percent who said big business is their gravest concern, and 8 percent who picked big labor. So, despite months of demonstrations, generally highly focused and broad based, Americans reserve their contempt for government. Not ports. Not even the banks.

In summary, if the Occupy movement continues to be hijacked by special interest or splinter groups, they will lose what support they garnered by their persistence and message.