Politics & Law

Occupy! Now what?

Claude Fischer

One can sympathize with the central message of the Occupy movement that economic inequality and injustice have gone too far (a message recently reaffirmed by the Congressional Budget Office’s report on inequality, the Census Bureau’s new report on poverty, and the Justice Department’s criminal complaints against financial operators) and still have the foreboding that things will not turn out well.

protestor with sign: "We are tthe 99%"

(Paul Stein/Flickr image)

Street protest movements rarely turn out well. In recent American history, it seems that if protest movements have had any political consequences of note, they have undermined their purposes probably more often than advanced them. The ones that have celebrated victory have had strong organization, discipline, defined goals, and a clear strategy to attain those goals – all features seemingly lacking in Occupy.

Success stories

A rare protest movement success story is the Civil Rights Movement, c. 1955-1965. (Although some research suggests that the protests were not nearly as critical to the outcome as was the long-term tide of American public opinion on race, the protests and their leaders have gained a hallowed status in America.) The movement had a solid organizational base, mainly in the black churches and black colleges. Activists  trained and learned great discipline – for example, to take abuse without striking back. When violence occurred, the protesters were the victims and not the perpetrators, and thus the movement gained sympathy from millions of Americans.

The goals were clear: In the short run, the right to sit in the front of the bus, to sit at the lunch counter, to vote. In the medium run: presidential directives and federal legislation. And the strategy was clear: Mobilize national public opinion to elect new legislators and make new legislation. Occupy seems to lack these features.

The Tea Party so far seems also to be a success story, albeit on a smaller scale. Stimulated by raucous town hall meetings, it quickly gained structure, strategy, and focus. Corporate entities (Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks) funded by billionaires and staffed by professionals provided the structure and planning. Tea Party activists focused on selecting candidates in Republican primaries and caucuses, registering and turning out their base, and getting their people elected. It worked; they have moved the political debate to the right. Occupy lacks these elements, too.

Other stories

These are exceptions. The typical protest story ends with little to show — or worse. Many think back to the anti-Vietnam War street actions as a model for Occupy. But there is no solid evidence that the Vietnam protests shortened the war (the rising number of dead Americans did). Indeed, the street actions probably had the opposite effect — prolonging the war by, one, discrediting anti-war leaders in the eyes of the television-viewing public, and two, providing Richard Nixon with a wedge issue in 1968 with which he separated working-class Americans from the Democratic party. Indeed, the GOP has run against anti-war “hippies” for decades.

The Black Power Movement and civil disorders in American cities following the decline of the Civil Rights Movement provide another backfire case. Some research suggests that the federal government sent “community action” money into the inner cities in effort to quiet the streets; this might appear to be a success. That money, however, seemed to have done little for poor black communities (or even reached many residents). The burning cities, however, did provide another image that conservative forces used to rally mainstream America against liberalism.

Most street protest movements – from the bloody battles of the 19th century between, say, immigrants and anti-immigrant forces (see here), labor protests in the 19th century, and the Bonus Army, to the anti-Iraq War demonstrations – left little residue in policy, at least in the short and medium run. (One could argue that a few, like the Vietnam protests, had cultural consequences perhaps a generation or so down the road, but that is cold comfort.)

What’s to be done?

In the 1976 hit film, Network, a television news anchorman, yells out on the air, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” He gets thousands, maybe millions, of Americans to open their windows and yell the same phrase into the streets below. Felt good; changed nothing.

Occupy has, at the moment, turned public attention to inequality and garnered widespread sympathy. A lot of people are mad as hell. If Occupy is to change the nation, however, it needs to use the moment and move toward a focused, disciplined, strategy to achieve a very few clear and doable ends (– and conversely, to avoid being seen as anarchistic, anti-everything, and confused). This means engaging the electoral system, like it or not. The banks won’t roll over if even millions of modest-income clients moved their checking accounts around. Speaker of the House John Boehner will not have a conversion experience even if a million people camp out on the national Mall. You have a better chance if he can count the votes.

(A side note: Some have likened Occupy to the Arab Spring. That analogy suggests that Occupy will get the U.S. military to turn on Washington and displace the federal government. Not too likely.)

Occupy Wall Street/Oakland/etc. needs to get practical and strategic. Hastings Law Professor David Levine has one reasonable suggestion: That each of “the 99%” register 99 new voters apiece. That — as the veterans of the Civil Rights movement might testify — just might work.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

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Comments to "Occupy! Now what?":
    • TIM

      It appears as long as large corporations and most bigger businesses continue thier bottom line from global sales and internet customers, which I believe that might be most of the one percent, then the rest of us are out on a limb without the respect and concern of millions of American companies, which used to be the opposite.

      So we need to think about a big shift in doing business and supporting America.

      1) People in need, since there are so many now, should contribute something, if they are fit, litter and street maintenance comes to mind, those that arent maybe phone calls to promote business for others and daycare or volunteer help.

      2) New industries are a must, such as anything that creates work and some payback, physical generators, again land maintenance and pest prevention, new types of transportation such as golf carts and bio fuel vehicles for city use.
      a) bio fuel is a multi industry project, requiring collection , refining, distributing, and by products such as soap and candles. Which should be accomplished by several different businesses, not one big company.
      b) not to mention the mdification of vehicle for different fuel supply systems, and diesel engine replacement and repair.
      giving new business to auto repair, and millions of out of work mechanics.
      3) Food service businesses need to have a recollection business that can collect and redistribute food for homeless and poor.
      I would think people without a ready supply of food would be happy to become food suppliers.
      4) Waste disposal needs to recycle and run generators and use citizens jailed for crimes to pick and sort for thier punishment.

      5) unless we are greatly wealthy we should have our money in, local credit unions, and use local service providers only, and legislation to support and protect this.

      6) School teachers and police that have to quit or be let go when there are empty homes that could be part of thier earnings?
      The mortgage and developers and tax claims owe us support, instead of ignorance.

      7) The financial crooks need to bring some of thier millions back into the communities they robbed it from thru overvalued properties, and take a nice tax deduction for healthy donations or leave the country.

      These are are just a few quick thoughts and structure and changes can come very quick once we begin.

      The answers are right in front of us, and we cannot let big business and old ways of crony philosophy ruin life for millions in need. All these empty buildings and wasted food and, theres homeless?

      The landowners and realestate people have a obligation to the community to support and empower the citizens, not to just hide and hold down growth.

      There must be a new term of law and contract- called “for the good of the people ” and “reduced liability for implied socio-economic support” to stop frugal litigation, and fear of landowners and property managers to allow temporary use of empty buildings for non profit use.

      I think the basic intended results of these ideas are the basic tennants that The Constitution was created for.

      [Report abuse]

    • harkin

      I really can’t get behind a movement that doesn’t know the difference between freedom of speech and freedom to camp, trespass, disrupt, trash, severely inhibit nearby businesses etc all the while acting like spoiled teenagers and demanding someone else (the taxpayers, who would’ve guessed) to pay for their food,security, cleanup and vandalism.

      Thanks Day Of Rage/OWS/Obamaville for making the Tea Party movement look so good by comparison, no matter the spin from the msm.

      [Report abuse]

    • Jeremy M.

      Looking to the past will only get you so far when analysing a movement like this. To overlook the crucial role that social networking and new media play in both OWS and the Arab Spring is to pretty much miss the point entirely. In fact neglecting to even mention these phenomena makes you look woefully behind the times.

      With all due respect Dr. Fischer, if more scholars like you got off their asses and stood in solidarity with the students they teach (and in your case did a little more post-millenial research) this movement would have even more of a shot at becoming a real revolution.

      [Report abuse]

    • tali c

      I agree that the Occupy movement could use some more cohesion and organization, but I sadly have to say that registering to vote isn’t as easy as it sounds

      Who do we vote for? What do we vote on? How do we understand the candidates and wording of complicated props and ballots to best make the right choices? Will the candidates and legislative measures actually make a difference?

      [Report abuse]

    • stanchaz

      America used to work The people had work. The system worked. EVEN the Congress used to work…(sometimes). It was far, far, far from perfect – but at least we all had some share in the struggles AND the rewards. But somewhere along the way, we lost our way. And now we have an economy and a political system that works only for the rich. Trickle down economics just leaves most of us… out in the rain.

      We need to get back to what America was, and what it should be, and what it can be. Occupy Wall Street is no longer just  a place called  Zuccotti Park —  Zuccotti Park is everywhere. You can try to pen us in, you can beat us and arrest us, you can mace and tear-gas us , and you can try to “permit” us to death….but you can’t kill an idea.  You can’t keep down people’s hopes and dreams for a better life…..a life with dignity and freedom….for us… for our kids.

      More power to Occupy Wall Street, as it spreads to every town and city  – because  OWS is us, and for us, and by us. It comes up from the grassroots, and it lifts us up. With OWS America has found it’s voice, and that voice demands fairness and justice. This land IS our land! And we want it back! We want our lives back! We want our future back! Find a quiet place and consider this: We only have one brief life…one chance…and many choices. It’s time to choose, and to act. If not now, then when? If not you, then…..

      [Report abuse]

    • victormentality

      The 99% are not victims and this is not a protest, it’s an Action for Change. Occupiers are aware this will take time and are in it for the long haul.
      Change does not happen over night, the 99% watched in horror as the 1% systematically gutted the infrastructure of America, manipulated the financial market and thwarted the consitution to serve their selfish amtitions.
      Yes, the 99% hoped for a miracle, but finally came to the only logical and realistic solution, if we want our nation back then we have to take it back, one step at a time with Steady Persistence.

      [Report abuse]

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