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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Occupy Spring

April 13, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Occupy Minnesota and Best Buy are each in a bind. They’re in the same bind, having everyone wondering how they’re going to move forward, remain relevant and execute on their core missions. Minnesota needs both to succeed.

Except for their obvious differences—one is a retailer and the other is a political change movement—the two organizations confront remarkably similar problems. Both are leaderless, although Occupy is leaderless by design and Best Buy is leaderless due to circumstance. Both groups have a lot people intently watching their every move, wondering whether one or both will be as relevant tomorrow as they were last year.

It’s a fair question.

Best Buy is a big box retailer. It grew from the 1981 Roseville tornado’s sweep. Disaster yielded opportunity as the stereo systems retailer rapidly shifted from a low volume/high margin business strategy to a high volume/low margin model. By the 1990s, Best Buy was a leader in big box-style retailing, building ever-larger stores to offer customers expanding product selection.

But, consumer electronics is a fickle master. Products change rapidly. Taste changes even faster. In many respects, retail electronics is a commodity, undifferentiated by any quality other than price. In other words, a TV is a TV is a TV. The particular brand matters less when every TV functions like every other TV.

When price is a retail customer’s only concern, the drive to the bottom accelerates. Best Buy was born in a post-tornado, discounted price tent sale adjacent to a storm-damaged store. As product flew out the tent flap, the company quickly brought in more stereo equipment to sell at discount. The tent became the big box. And now, the big box has become the internet. Best Buy is struggling to sell low-priced consumer electronics while paying for high visibility, high accessibility and high cost commercial real estate. Internet retailers, like Amazon, don’t pay for any of that.

Occupy Minnesota and its national counterparts are coming back to life. Like plants budding after winter dormancy, the street-focused movement is re-engaging now that it’s nice enough to be outside.

Occupy began as Occupy Wall Street, a protest movement that established a semi-permanent base in the New York City Financial District’s Zuccotti Park. New York City ordinance forbids overnight occupancy, establishing a point of conflict with city leaders. Occupy protestors used NYC’s ordinance compliance measures to increase issue visibility.

The Occupy movement has been chiefly concerned with income inequality and wealth distribution. Movement participants and organizers use direct action strategies, seeking to compel confrontation with law enforcement as a means of expanding visibility. In this regard, Occupy continues a rich tradition established by the Labor and Civil Rights movements.

Black voter registration drives of the1960s in southern states met fierce resistance. Local, elected officials either directed violent opposition by sworn peace officers or, more typically, by sanctioned vigilante action. Civil Rights leaders learned to carefully choose confrontation strategies that increased national visibility, exposing the violence used to maintain local power structures. Civil disobedience bears witness to social injustice.

The Occupy movement struck a nerve, achieving wide-spread resonance and support. The interests of a few wealthy people, encoded in state and national law, were working against the community and family stability desired by the vast majority. Asserting broad identity, Occupy’s catch phrase, “We are the 99%,” created community through income inequality’s shared experience.

But, at its core, Occupy is a street action. That’s been its great achievement and its challenge.

Occupy’s focus is economic injustice, not camping. Camping—physically occupying public space as an element of protest—is the mechanism to create public awareness of income inequality’s negative consequences. What worked last fall, in part because it was new and unexpected, won’t work this spring in exactly the same way.

Moving from protest to policy change is no small challenge. Repeatedly scuffling with the police eventually undermines public support for the protest’s goals. The tactical question—how to move forward—is inseparable from the strategic question, what do you want?

Here’s my suggestion: Press for Minnesota state policy leaders to reopen last year’s budget deal and raise taxes on Minnesota’s highest one percent of income earners. It will create a modestly small amount of increased public revenue, money that can be directed to school funding and affordable healthcare. This increase represents a balanced approach, raising taxes while cutting budgets, creates a fair, sustainable path forward toward prosperity and greater economic justice. Plus, it will deliver on Occupy’s promise.

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1 Comments:

  • ChristeenStone says:

    April 17, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    I have given a great deal of thought to this issue and I think you have covered it real well. I have been impressed with the group who has been bringing this idea forward and admired them very much, but I agree they do need to set a goal as you suggested. They have done a good job of establishing who they are and what they feel is fair. I just wish some well known
    former legislators would step forward and endorse what they are trying to do. They certainly have my best wishes.