The Occupy Wall Street — or Occupy [Your City] — movement made me remember an old expression: "Are you just occupying space?" It was normally preceded by another question. For example: "Are you getting any work done or are you just occupying space?" In the expression, to "occupy" is to be irritatingly passive and ineffectual. In my experience, it was a relatively mild insult, usually deployed by mothers and schoolteachers.
Should protesters want to convey an aura of inaction? Perhaps! Think of the old protest slogan: "We're here/We're queer/Get used to it." The message is: look, we exist. The onlooker is challenged to stop denying the existence of the people who are making their existence apparent by just occupying space. That's all.
What's perplexing about Occupy [Your City] is that the onlookers already know that people affected by the economy exist. Everyone is affected. The onlookers don't feel that they are at any sort of distanced relationship to the problem the protesters are attempting to highlight. The protesters are simply the people who have taken up urban camping as a manifestation of concern about the problem.
The onlookers might admire the protesters for their stamina and hardiness, but they might also be annoyed by the filth and chaos, especially if it undermines their ability to pursue their own livelihood. Why do these people who are just occupying space think they are heroic when I work all day and go home at night to take care of my family?
The protesters should be able to connect with the nonprotesters, since the economic problems are shared and there's little emphasis on solutions. (Did you see this Onion piece: "Nation Finally Breaks Down And Begs Its Smart People To Just Fix Everything"?) There shouldn't be an us/them relationship between the protesters and onlookers. It's a shared predicament, and the protesters don't have superior knowledge about the problems or what to do about them. But they are there, out on the street. Then what?
They could turn inward and resist communication, like the Occupy Oakland protesters who wore masks and then turned their backs on a reporter who wanted to interview them about what they were doing. But it would be better for them to turn outward, adopting a demeanor that would allow onlookers to talk with them and have real conversations about shared problems. Of course, a conversation goes both ways. You can't just harangue people. There must be back and forth, and since the protesters don't really know what to do about the problems, they can demonstrate their good faith by really engaging.
An outsider to the protest should be able to move into the crowd and get a dialogue going, the way investment guru Peter Schiff did the other day:
Last March, during the height of the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol, we were impressed by a man — we call him "The Man in the Middle" — who was not one of protesters, who took a seat in the center of the rotunda and invited people to sit down and talk to him one on one. That was one of the best moments in the protests.
Why don't people talk to each other? There was a popular chant last winter — now taken up by the Occupy crowds — "This is what democracy looks like." But democracy should look like people talking to each other. Not staring each other down from a secure distance.