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.
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.
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.
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.