A Tale of Two Protests: Why SlutWalk Works Better Than Occupy Wall Street
To get people to join a movement, they need to see themselves in it. Here's why Slutwalk does that for me and Occupy Wall Street doesn't.
When I visited the Occupy Wall Street site in lower Manhattan yesterday, I felt a pull of solidarity for the protesters. I'm against corporate greed. I wish our government would tax the rich more, regulate corporations, and crack down on corruption. I agree that the bank bailout money should have gone to the people instead. A few signs, like "Remember the other 99 percent," tugged at my heartstrings.
But ultimately, Occupy Wall Street didn't do it for me. The lack of a clear focus, the gutter-punk aesthetic, the 24/7 commitment—it all turned me off. Meandering through the rainbow knit caps, sleeping bags, and "Tax the rich" signs, I thought of another protest that resonated with me much more: SlutWalk.
The first SlutWalk, a protest against rape and sexual double-standards, took place last April in Toronto. It was sparked by a local police officer telling a public safety class that women "should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." About 4,000 people showed up to a march planned for a few hundred. Since then, the protests have gone viral, spreading to more than 70 cities around the world, from Los Angeles to New Delhi to Cape Town. This Saturday, SlutWalk is coming to my hometown of New York City.
Tomorrow I'm taking the same train I did yesterday, but I'm getting off early at Union Square to join the SlutWalkers instead of the Wall Street occupiers. Here's why:
SlutWalk's demands are simple, Wall Street's are fuzzy. There has been some internal debate over whether the word "slut" is worth reclaiming or whether the SlutWalk movement includes everyone. But the message is clear as a bell: There is no excuse for rape. We need to stop determining a woman's credibility and worth based on what she wears and who she sleeps with. Period.
By nearly all accounts, the Occupy Wall Street message is muddled. "Hey President Obama, get ready for our one demand!" an Adbusters post proclaimed. Apparently the "one demand" is to abolish corporate greed—and capital punishment, and joblessness, and police brutality too. And the wars and the wealth gap and corporate censorship. Some observers have defended the movement, but many of the protesters I saw at Occupy Wall Street represented a laundry list of causes—one had "Troy Davis," "Bush's family," "BP," and "Enron," all on the same sign, along with a "Never Forget" for good measure. I overheard people talking passionately about everything from the Second Amendment to global warming. It was dizzying.
The explanation is that Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless movement that eschews a top-down structure. I totally feel that. And I understand all these issues are interconnected. Women's issues are, too—the SlutWalkers could have easily gone down a rabbit hole of every lady topic ever, expanding the protest to cover reproductive rights, domestic violence, and the glass ceiling. But they stayed focused on sexual assault. For the Wall Street protests to resonate to the rest of the country, there needs to be a clear ask or two.
SlutWalk is about "us," Wall Street is about "them." Both of these protests are about toppling existing power structures, but only one holds the entire culture accountable. SlutWalkers are demanding not only for rapists to stop raping, but for cops and the media and the average Joe and Jane to stop blaming women for their own sexual assault. The fact that the movement was spurred by a man excusing a rape, not committing one, is significant. We have a collective responsibility to alter our way of thinking.
The protesters on Wall Street aim their anger at big business but propose no solutions to the masses. Why not promote the Move Your Money Project? Why not send the message to middle America to stop voting for candidates who will sell the people out to big business? (It'd be slim pickins, but it would drive the point home.) Banks and corporations have power for a reason—it's because we've let them have power. Sure, get angry at fat cats, but demanding change from the top is not enough. Identify the public's power and leverage it.
SlutWalk is "no dress code," Wall Street is a drum circle. For all its claims of diversity, the Wall Street protesters I saw all had a stereotypically crunchy, pseudo-anarchist style—filthy overalls, tie-dye, dreds on white people—that not only alienates the group they're trying to change, but other progressives, too. Like it or not, image matters. Even if people identify themselves as activists, it doesn't mean they identify with the aesthetic they've seen in black-and-white photos of anti-Vietnam marches. Why co-opt another era's protest style to articulate 2011 problems? To get people to join your movement, they need to see themselves reflected in it.
SlutWalk has faced its own image problems. The protest has been criticized for pressuring women to wear Girls-Gone-Wild outfits, but the reality is that while some women stuff themselves into bustiers and stilettos, others rock sweatpants. Most wear something in between. The most chilling images I've seen so far are of women in a whole array of outfits holding signs that say, " As Salamishah Tillet pointed out in The Nation yesterday, SlutWalk is just as much about freedom of expression than it is about protesting sexual assault. The point is that it shouldn't matter what you wear, you deserve to be safe.
SlutWalk is on a Saturday, Wall Street is around-the-clock. Since April, SlutWalk has maintained a constant media presence, but it doesn't expect its protesters to be on the march all the time. It's a single day—a single, weekend day—in each city. Full participation doesn't require an empty schedule.
Occupy Wall Street's "set up camp and stay there" approach is anachronistic. It may have worked at a time when the economy was good, but it isn't feasible anymore. This movement is primarily accessible to professional activists and those who can afford not to work, which undermines the populist, mainstream message the movement purports to convey. It's ironic that the things keeping people like me away from Wall Street are the very things the protesters decry—job scarcity, the wealth gap, rising health care and food costs. But that doesn't make it any more likely that we'll show up. We're holding onto our jobs for dear life.
Occupy Wall Street's style and vibe could evolve now that New York City unions have voted unanimously to support the movement and plan an upcoming march. But the fact remains: In order to speak to the largest number of people, a protest needs a message that is universal yet razor-sharp. It needs to hold everyone accountable, not just politicians and CEOs. It needs a public image that's provocative but broadly appealing. And it needs to fit our lives. SlutWalk gets down to business while advocating pleasure. No wonder it's lured thousands. It's about to lure one more.
An earlier version of this article stated that the author agreed that "the stimulus should have gone toward jobs programs and not bank bailouts." It has been corrected to clarify that these are two distinct acts passed by Congress.\n