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More on Occupy

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | November 15, 2011

Last week’s post on the OWS Movement, “Occupy! Now What?,” got more than the usual attention – in part perhaps because it was re-posted on The Berkeley Blog just about the time that the police roughed up defenders of the tents at the campus occupation. The interest led me to re-check my notions about the effectiveness of street protests in modern America; the result of that quick review follows. (I am no expert on social movements, but do provide a handful of links at the bottom of this post.)

Occupy Oakland

Occupy Oakland encampment

As of the morning of November 15, with encampments around the nation being cleared, it seems that the movement is dissolving; maybe this discussion is now just an academic exercise. Even were the encampments or similar street action to return, the Occupy movement – righteous as it is on the central issues – faces major hurdles beyond the disarray of the camps themselves.

What it takes to win

When we think of street protests on behalf of major social change in the United States, we remember the most vivid, the most lasting, and the most recent campaigns. But street protests here are not that common; the ones that leave a lasting impression are rarer still. Even at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, relatively few demonstrations occurred in relatively few cities. Fewer yet can be said to have effectively changed policy, either because the policies did not change (e.g., various anti-war protests – against involvement in World War I, in World War II, Ban-the-Bomb in the 1950s, anti-Vietnam in the 1960s, anti-Iraq I in the 1990s, and anti-Iraq II in the 2000s), or because it is difficult to distinguish the consequences of the street action from those of a shift in public opinion that was already under way (e.g., various waves of feminist action).

To be sure, local protests focused on specific goals often succeed even in the U.S.: a labor action against a particular firm; NIMBY neighbors resisting, say, traffic changes or the building of a half-way house; campus action demanding, say, an ethnic studies program. But street protest for national social change is another matter.

If there is an American  movement for which street action may well have made a significant difference, it is the Civil Rights Movement. Almost alone among the movements of the last few generations, the activists of this one have been honored – indeed, have been canonized. (So, even as Berkeley’s Chancellor initially defended police action at the Occupy Berkeley site, he held up the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement as a model to honor.) The black freedom activists could reasonably be proud of immediate achievements, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the long-term ones, such as the election of a black president about 50 years after a time when that man would have been barred in much of America from eating at lunch counters and from voting.

Martin Luther King leading Civil Rights marchWinning is uncommon, but the general formula for winning seems to be that the protesters are going with the tide of public opinion; have allies in powerful places, especially the White House and Congress; are organized, disciplined, and hard-working; are focused on specific policy goals; can be seen as innocent victims of attacks by reactionaries; and more broadly are seen as virtuous by the general public. (Nurses and firefighters, not DMV clerks, have been the strategic symbols of the recent resistence to union-busting in the Midwest). And eventually, achieving lasting change has to go through the electoral (sometimes the judicial) process.


My original post along these lines drew a few challenges that basically said: That’s old history, old man. A new generation is at work with new tools under new rules. One commentor pointed me to a Rolling Stone column. Writer Matt Taibbi describes himself as having originally been skeptical of the OWS in Zaccotti Park, “snickering” about its political naivete. But then the energy and vision of OWS converted him:

They don’t care what we think they’re about, or should be about. . . .  I think I understand now that this is what the Occupy movement is all about. It’s about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a ‘beloved community’ free of racial segregation. Eventually the Occupy movement will need to be specific about how it wants to change the world. But for right now, it just needs to grow. And if it wants to sleep on the streets for a while and not structure itself into a traditional campaign of grassroots organizing, it should. It doesn’t need to tell the world what it wants. It is succeeding, for now, just by being something different.

Two replies: One, he is wrong about what made the Civil Rights Movement work, confusing it with the musical “Hair.” Two, he has faith that something workable will just evolve. One can hear the snorts from Civil Rights Movementleaders like John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, and Bob Moses.

Now what?

Occupy has had great success in drawing attention to inequality. Fortunately, that message resonates with Americans’ concern, growing over several years, about economic inequality. But the moment to leverage that agreement may pass quickly – may have passed. A month ago the Gallup Poll found that Americans were likelier to approve than to disapprove of the OWS goals, but by a slim margin (22 to 15 percent; 62 percent didn’t know enough to say) and by a thinner margin to approve the way the protests were conducted (25 to 20 percent; 55 percent saying they did not know enough). Since then, the events and images associated with Occupy have been more unsettling to the wider public. If the energy and good will of the early Occupy days could be harnessed and directed to practical politics, then perhaps . . . but then folks like Rolling Stoner Matt Taibbi might say that it is no longer the Occupy movement which thrilled him so.

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