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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.

Comments to “More on Occupy

  1. Two quick (albeit late) replies to these comments: 1. I’m disappointed by those who argue that the experience itself (the community of occupiers)justifies Occupy. There are real people hurting in real ways — e.g., child care centers closing — and to expend energy in making oneself feel good is not good. 2. These defenses assume that there is no cost to Occupy. But there is (aside from losing time) and that is alienating the wider public and thus energizing the opponents (which is what, for example, the Panthers and the rioters of the ’60s ended up doing).

    • I agree with your point that the experience of participants alone does not justify Occupy—I tried to clarify that in my second post, but maybe didn’t do so forcefully enough. Anyone who goes to Occupy exclusively to have a good time should find a better reason to be there.

      But I disagree that “expending energy in making oneself feel good is not good.” People pour enormous amounts of energy into Occupy, but it’s a high return investment. In addition to its other functions, Occupy is like a fueling station where people load up on inspiration, new ideas, and relationships necessary to sustain many types of social change activity. Many participants work directly on policy change, while others find other ways to effect change— voting, conversations with friends, interventions at work, art, volunteering, etc. This is why social movements (including the Black Panthers) shouldn’t be judged on the narrow metric of visible policy success alone.

      Another problem is with that metric is that it is often difficult to measure—for example, we don’t know whether or not the Iraq War-protests shortened the war or changed its outcome because we can’t repeat history, so it’s unfair to label them a failure. As Einstein said, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

      Your point about backlash is well taken. In my experience, tactics like property destruction and scuffles with police repel potential allies and galvanize opposition, while peaceful protest in the face of police brutality gains widespread public sympathy and energizes movements. That said, backlash is part of any social movement that threatens entrenched interests. Universally canonized leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi were extremely polarizing figures in their time. So yes, let’s be cautious about backlash, but also remember the absence of backlash is the mark of an irrelevant movement.

      Finally, I just reread my first post and cringed when I saw the “lousy science” comment. That was snotty — I apologize. You raise a lot of important points, and this movement needs intelligent criticism from the left like yours.

  2. Like Professor Fischer, I initially had a lot of skepticism about Occupy, and still wonder how it might lead to policy change? I’ve found two responses.

    RESPONSE 1: In the view of many, Occupy’s demand is occupation, not policy change. Occupy seeks to create a space for self and community actualization—this may in turn lead to policy change, but any researcher who focuses myopically on policy change is missing the point (same goes for some of the other “failed” social movements that Fischer mentions). We should compare Occupy to other social movements, but we should also compare it to Burning Man—sans the high cost of admission, sand, electronic music, and (for the most part) drugs. Both are social experiments—intentional communities built around principles like direct democracy, radical self-expression, reduced consumption, openness and inclusion, and a (for the most part) share economy.

    Envisioning ways in which Occupy might effect policy change is key. But judging it a failed social movement because it is not the Tea Party is like going to a hardware store looking for an orange, then declaring the hardware store a lousy fruit stand. That’s not a lousy fruit stand, it’s lousy science—you’re imposing your own definition success rather than asking how the movement defines success or examining other forms of movement outcomes.

    At a recent forum at UCB, Fischer seemed frustrated that Occupiers feel so good about themselves even though they lack a centralized plan for effecting policy change. But Fischer overlooks the possibility that feeling good might be one of Occupy’s demands. We live in an era of unparalleled and accelerating economic inequality and environmental devastation, which policy makers seem incapable of reigning in. Just as some occupiers come to the encampments to meet their needs for food and shelter, others come to meet their needs for hope and joy. They have not felt good about the country’s trajectory for a long time (for many Obama’s election provided momentary jubilation, followed by letdown), so they are creating communities that make them proud. These communities may serve as launch pads for large scale social transformations, but their success does not hinge upon it.

    Which brings me to RESPONSE #2: the occupation is just the beginning. Though Occupy is in its infancy, it is already starting to effect policy change through four mutually reinforcing mechanisms, which I sketch out below. The real question is whether it will result in large scale change. Honestly, I’m skeptical. I feel the greatest optimism for #4, but think #3 holds the greatest potential were we to invest sufficient energy and resources behind it.
    1. Changing the electoral equation: As Claude noted, Occupy has shifted media attention from deficit to inequality (according to Politico, media mention of the term “inequality” has quintupled since the start of Occupy). This can potentially provide political cover for elected officials to push progressive policy (e.g., Obama’s recent mortgage and student loans initiatives), help get progressives elected, and help defeat conservative ballot initiatives (there’s no evidence that Occupy influenced Ohio, Arizona, or Mississippi’s elections earlier this month, but it’s possible). Yesterday a memo from a high powered financial lobbying firm was leaked, which says that Occupy is creating an environment in which “Republicans will no longer defend Wall Street companies—and might start running against them too.” It proposes a nearly $1m campaign to squash Occupy. (
    2. Pitchforks: Despite Occupy’s vague demands, the threat of protests may scare power holders into action. Bank of America unilaterally withdrew its $5 monthly ATM surcharge policy. Yudof and the UC Regents postponed votes on further student fee hikes. Chancellor Birgeneau openly called for a repeal of Prop 13 and Prop 209.
    3. Alliances: This is the “pitchforks plus” model, which bridges the chasm between Occupy and electoral politics. Social movements that engage in electoral politics may use Occupy as a platform to advance their policy goals. There are many examples, but the best one I know is Refund California, a coalition of education, labor and community groups, which is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into strategic political research for a campaign to free up revenue for public education and social programs. Refund has drawn on Occupy’s rhetoric, energy, and people power to help orchestrate mass mobilizations across the state. Last Wednesday, for example, in a march organized by Refund, 250 protesters occupied a Bank of America branch in San Francisco, erected a tent inside, then demanded that a “Wall Street regent” who sits on Bank of America’s board sign a pledge ( to support five policies which will help reverse the dismantling of public education.
    4. Diffusion: Occupy energizes and educates movement participants, who in turn go off and effect policy change in diverse, unpredictable, and immeasurable ways. Most Occupy participants are young people, who are at inflection points in the formation of their political identities. Like participants in the social movements of the 1960s, this exposure will lead some to transform their life paths and pursue careers in social and environmental justice. Many others will follow more mainstream career paths, but will find other ways—from volunteer work to interventions at home and work—to stand up for their values.

    • Upon further reflection, I’d like to temper the statement “In the view of many, Occupy’s demand is occupation, not policy change.” The vast majority of Occupiers do want radical policy change, and Fischer does a great service by thinking about lessons they could learn from historical antecedents to their movement (though he overlooks perhaps the most relevant antecedent, the anti-globalization movement). But I stand by statement, that an equally important goal of Occupy is building micro-communities that reflect the broader changes people would like see in the world. Fischer and most other commentators undervalue this accomplishment due to their focus on direct and measurable policy impact.

  3. I think of an occupation (of a street, a bank, or a lunch counter, or a public space) as a short term event or tactic designed to draw attention to a problem, to draw support for a cause or goal, and to unite people. The extent to which the various occupations around the country have rallied people to express their frustration at our growing challenges, drawn attention to the root of some of our problems, and helped Americans to feel less helpless and alone is the extent to which the occupations have been successful. And I do think the occupations have been largely invigorating and hope-giving. But I think it’s important “to do enough and nothing more.” In other words, to try not to overdo any one thing. I do not believe occupation or a media blitz, or any tactic is an end in itself. So, unlike some people I do not see the end to the occupations as a retreat. I was surprised by that feeling. I sort of expected leaders to be a step ahead and say “we’re disbanding the encampments on our terms and moving on to something else.” I suppose people who were being forced to break up the encampments in the face of police action might see it as a retreat, but in reality look at all that the occupy mov’t has accomplished in terms of knowing how to organize and bring people together. Maybe it is time to change tactics anyway. Always leave people wanting more, not less. And know that just because some people don’t support ongoing encampment doesn’t mean they aren’t your supporters.

  4. What Professor Fischer fails to mention is that the crux of my criticism of his analysis of OWS has to do with his (apparently complete) ignorance with regard to modern technological methods of communication/networking and their role in modern revolution.

    To ignore the power of Twitter, Facebook, smart phones (with video cameras don’t ya know) and the like is to ignore a core component that empowers and grows OWS. We may be living in what is verging on a police state, but when protesters can upload freshly shot video to YouTube instantly it’s a brand new day for revolution.

  5. By exposing itself as a violent Empire, the enemy of democracy has allowed the Occupy revolution to leverage Empire’s own weight to use a very effective judo move “Against Empire” [Parenti].

    With the attacks on Portland, Oakland, and now the New York Occupy Wall Street locations in the middle of the night by paramilitary forces of the EMPIRE, we are seeing the precise equivalent of Krystallnacht in America —- and this is no surprise because the corporate state, like the fascist Nazi Empire in Germany in the 1930′s is precisely the same.

    Krystallnacht in America is happening right now all over America.

    Yes, the 21st century, post-nation-state global corporate/financial/militarist Empire has taken off the gloves, bared its fangs, and is now brutally enforcing the take over of our former country, which the disguised Empire had previously done over the past three decades by hiding behind the facade of its modernized TWO-Party “Vichy” sham of faux-democracy and totally illegitimate government —- just as the Nazi Empire’s attack, capture, and occupation of France employed a phony ‘Vichy’ government for Frenchmen who behaved, but used the tow-trucks with wire rope nooses for those who dared to confront the EMPIRE.

    Occupy, has caused embarrassment and threat to the new global Empire that controls America, and now will be dealt with by stronger means, just as the Nazi Empire in France dealt with resistant Frenchmen with the wire rope noose.

    This is the Krystallnacht of America, which future historians will record as the overt and violent take-over of a country that had already been reduced by Empire to a quiet ‘walking dead image’ of our promising democracy.

    Empire has exposed itself as Empire, and now the revolution will really begin to make progress.

    Liberty, democracy, justice, and equality

  6. There are millions of people in the United States that are the core. The facts are simple.
    You can watch an Academy Award winning Documentary voiced by Matt Damon, called “Inside Job”.
    Most people hadn’t even got that 1% of the population owns the country three months ago.
    The media is owned by the 1% in general. This is a fact. So the millions of people in the US are saying what you are saying. What is all this camping about?

    But the truth is available. The Occupy Movement just needs to make everyone wake up to the truth.

    If the cities who clearly are run by business leaders clear out the protesters, then that is fine to those of us. The facts will remain the same. The only difference will be that we Will Ratchet Up the Truth to be that we live in a police state. And then the protest will continue by those you vilified in the Arab States just before the Arab Spring. The terrorists.

    I would rather have a camp of protesters in every city, then to worry about how easy it is to take a butane container and duct tape a flare to it. The metal alone will break through a window… Do you see my point? What we have now is the people holding their righteousness in love and peace. Remove them and a civil war will start….

    Aren’t you someone that studies history…. Didn’t the Black Panthers start up later? This time it is just as real. So take yourself out of your glass castle…

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