There is little doubt that the Occupy movement has lost some of its original steam. But is the phenomenon dead? The Generation co-editors, Brad Rowe and David Taylor, performed exploratory surgery on the patient in question and determined their individual prognoses.
Only ‘mostly-dead’ — why the Occupy movement still has a pulse
By David Taylor
From the Wisconsin state capitol building, to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, to New York’s Zuccotti Park – the image of the protestor left an indelible mark in the minds of the global public in 2011. While a the bulk of last year’s protest-related coverage concentrated on the Arab Spring, toward the end of the year attention shifted to the Occupy movement – a worldwide protest against economic inequality. The phrase “we are the 99 percent” – popularized on a Tumblr blog – came to represent the protestors’ belief that the top 1 percent of the world’s population holds the bulk of the financial and political power.
Yet the Occupy movement, once a media darling, has been relegated to the back pages of newspapers as newer stories (e.g., the death of Kim Jong-il, the U.S. Republican Party primaries) enthralled the public. Meanwhile the Occupy sit-ins across the United States and elsewhere have dwindled in the wake of police raids and cold weather. The perception that the media has moved on, combined with the notion that the demonstrations lack leadership and a clear aim, has led some to conclude that movement is on its last legs.
Yet, it would be premature to begin writing an obituary. Recent events show show that the movement is still inciting action. In December the Occupy movement inspired protestors in Bahrain to attempt to close down the Budaiya Highway, one of the countries main roads, in protest of the inequalities between the Shia majority and Sunni ruling minority in that island nation. Moreoever, the Occupy movement still possesses a strong Internet precense. Occupy protestors plan creating an alternative to Facebook, entitled The Global Square, to help sustain the cause.
These revelations evince that the largely dormant Occupy movement may reemerge as the hectic holiday season ends, warmer spring weather arrives, and the U.S. election season switches into high gear. Ultimately, however, the outcome of several key events in early 2012 will act as arbiters to determine the Occupy movement’s long-term sustainability:
1) The recall election of Governor Scott Walker: the new Wisconsin governor came under strident criticism for supporting state legislation that ended collective bargaining for public unions. The resulting protests in early 2011 laid the groundwork for the Occupy movement. In response to Walker’s action, some Wisconsinites began to circulate a petition to recall the governor. It appears that the petitioners are on track to collect the 720,000 signatures needed to force the recall election. If the election occurs and Walker is defeated, then it will provide the Occupy movement with momentum, not unlike the election of Senator Scott Brown served as a rallying cry for the Tea Party in 2010.
2) A transition from protests to politics: “Occupy Wall Street, by definition, eschews the mainstream political process as corrupt beyond repair, which is certainly a reasonable position, but politics remains how business gets done and history is altered,” wrote The New York Times’ columnist David Carr last November. Indeed the Occupy movement must undergo a metamorphosis. This change is necessary for a number of reasons. For one, it is because the sit-ins and protests are routinely being broken up by authorities. More importantly, however, is that the movement must work inside the byzantine political system to truly achieve results. The Tea Party made its presence felt in the 2010 midterm elections by supporting key conservative candidates and using their collective power to assist the Republican Party in recapturing control of the U.S. House of Representatives. As the election season progresses the Occupy movement will have a myriad of chances to perform a similar feat. If the movement begins to coalesce around certain candidates – and more importantly these candidates begin to pander to it with their platforms – then we know that the Occupy movement will exist at least until the 2012 elections.
3) The formulation of leadership: the aforementioned selection of political candidates naturally leads to another question – who will lead this movement? Although the premise behind the Occupy movement as voiceless and leaderless is an attention-grabbing tagline, the fact remains that, historically speaking, protest movements typically require iconic leaders to succeed. Take, for example, Mohandas Gandhi’s protest against British rule or the iconic African American Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others. The Occupy movement will need a leader equivalent to Alexei Navalny, the blogger who inspired much of the anti-Putin protests occurring in Russia, or Anna Hazare, who led a recent fast in protest of corruption in the Indian government.
The Occupy movement may be in a lull, but it is far from dead. To sustain itself the movement must reinvent its approach. If the movement can accomplish this, then is may play a potent political role in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. If not, it will be a mere historical curiosity, occasionally mentioned on NPR podcasts and in LexisNexis research queries. Yet, before we collectively sign its death warrant, we should see what happens in the next few months.
Occupy is Dead
By Brad Rowe
Please tell me Occupy is like a possum playing dead. That, once all of the evictors have returned to their offices and all of the police go back to their stations to refuel on hot coffee, Occupy will open one eye and then get back to its feet.
Because from where I’m sitting it looks like you might be dead. Should we call in the coroner? “Occupy – Time of death – December 2011”. And who do we contact as next of kin?
It all started with a match. A produce vendor on the streets of Tunisia was pushed out of business by an oppressive government. He said ‘screw the establishment‘ and, in his anguish, set himself on fire. His countrymen heard the story, took to the streets, demonstrated, and 28 days later had a new government.
‘Wow, it worked’ rang through the hearts of oppressed Egyptians, where an embryonic mass strike exploded into a contagious demonstrating ferver in Tahrir Square. Same thing: Bam! Mubarak toppled.
This thing was taking on an international flair: Empathetic proletariat Arab and Jewish brethren in Jaffa, Israel carried signs in Hebrew and Arabic reading ‘Arabs and Jews want affordable housing.’
Then the Libyans… then the… then the… then the…
In come the Spanish, fueled that as of June 2011, almost half of Spaniards under the age of 24 were unemployed, and of those who had work, more than half were underemployed or earning close to minimum wage. In Spain, the mainstream media refered to Spanish youth as the “Neither-Nor” or “Ni-Ni” generation: neither studying nor working.
Yes, the Spanish wanted to ‘go big or go home’ and to do it with flair. They even had a cool name: ‘The Indignants’.
The numbers to hit the streets were staggering; 400,000 in Barcelona, 500,000 in Madrid and tens of thousands in several other cities. Wow, not only is Spain is my favorite country, but they started the movement on my birthday May 15, 2011. I was loving this.
They got the ear of the Spanish government and by all appearances were given promises that things would change.
Then on to America, the land of the free: “OK, this is working.” said a feisty group. And on September 17, 2011, a handful of protesters began to occupy Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Wall Street financial district. Their manifesto read as follows:
“The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”
And they didn’t stand for it. It became a media darling and caught the attention of regular folk and politicos alike: Before we knew it Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Washington had demonstration with many thousands in attendance.
And it didn’t stop there: Worldwide, demonstrations blew up all over with notable turnouts in Cape Town, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Porto Alegre, Santiago (10,000), Tel Aviv, Seoul, Vienna, Brussels (8,000), Zagreb (10,000), Copenhagen, London, Paris, Berlin (10,000), Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt (5,000), Hamburg (5,000), Leipzig, Stuttgart, Athens (4,000), Dublin, Rome (200,000), Amsterdam, Lisbon (20,000), Porto (20,000), Ljubljana (Slovenia – 4,000), Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland.
The flame for justice was burning white hot.
This was like a global rendition of Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” speech from the acclaimed 1976 film ‘Network’. For the uninitiated: it went like this: Prime time newscaster, Beale has gotten beaten down by the establishment and big business and goes bananas. He rants to the evening news cameras: “You’ve gotta say, ‘I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!’ So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!’
In the movie, people responded to Beale’s request. They went to their windows and shouted.
So here we are, 35 years after Beale, and there are people all over the world getting together to say “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” But there is no Beale. This is a leaderless, faceless movement that makes proclamations and group decisions through direct democratic gatherings every evening at every location. There is no structure to the movement.
It is perfectly without establishment. In fact, the Occupy requests were all counter-establishment. As with the Arab Spring, they spoke out against overt government oppression and lack of free speech. They spoke out against American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. And against drone strikes in Pakistan… against the marginalization of minorities and LGBT communities… against attacks on collective bargaining, retirement benefits, and unemployment insurance… against criminalization of marijuana… against rents and educational costs that are too high… Occupy even spoke out against the low wages earned by the police officers who stood poised to shoot pepper spray in their collective faces.
Against, against, against. I mean, man, this was some really groovy American Freedom Riders, Polish dock worker Solidarity, South African Anti-Apartheid, stick it to the man, make them pay attention, grade-A stuff.
Or was it? There was no Dr. King, or Medgar Evers, Elie Wiesel, Cezar Chavez, Kim Dae-Jung or Harvey Milk. No Gloria Steinem, Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel. There were no brand name leaders to throw in front of the microphone. No names to pop off of the page when you read The New York Times or Le Figaro. No leaders to invite to guest appear on ‘Washington Week’ or Al Jazeera’s The Café, or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
We watched as city after city enforced random sanitation or curfew codes and broomed the protesters out. And where were the leaders? As the police used batons, and brute squads, and pepper sprayed old ladies. Who was standing up and speaking on their behalf?
Or is that the point? That this is a media event where we see peaceful demonstrators speaking their minds and getting clubbed and gassed and sent off to jail – and then what? Leave it to the press to interpret what the demands are? I think this is far too important to let the cacophony of the press determine what the message is. All of the ‘against, against, against’ starts to blend into one din, until people cannot figure out what the message is. What ends up happening is that people then fixate on the insignificant details. They fixate on the circus of the demonstrations, the freaks and the bizzaros rather than message.
Maybe this lack of clarity is contributing to the death of the movement? With fewer people inspired to join and the existing troops running out of gas – will this spell fatal attrition?
ARE YOU STILL THERE?
Occupy, I ask, where are you today? It is Christmas 2011 and the movement seems to have devolved into some sort of mass navel gazing and contemplation. Maybe I don’t get it. As op-ed writer Douglas Rushkoff recently observed about the Occupy Wall Street movement: “…unlike a traditional protest, which identifies the enemy and fights for a particular solution, Occupy Wall Street just sits there talking with itself, debating its own worth, recognizing its internal inconsistencies and then continuing on as if this were some sort of new normal.”
Is this merely because the demonstrators are attempting to articulate that Uncle Sam is not looking out for their best interest; that the wealth being generated on average is not trickling down to them? Isn’t this really what all of these demonstrations boil down to?
Politics and money are inexorably connected. As inequalities in wealth and income grow around the world, so goes the divide in how we express ourselves politically. The poorest need their voice as much as the rich man does. The rich man can pay for his voice through the established means at his finger-tips. Those without the convenience of these resources must band together and project their collective voice.
This is what everyone had been doing exceedingly well all year. This is what we have seen replicated over and over in hundreds of locations around the globe. Individuals banding together, with the aid of social technology, to express themselves and take back some of the power and dignity that has been stripped from them by the establishment.
So let’s look at the reality of where Occupy is today. The winter is cold and camping out in town squares can be more than a pain – it can be down right risky. And I hate to point out the obvious, but — With a disintegrating social net and disappearing health benefits for millions, maybe long term health endangering encampments are no longer viable.
Having said that, I hope that the drop in temperature doesn’t also freeze the momentum that reached a feverish crescendo in the waning days of summer and into the fall.
Maybe Occupy isn’t dead. To bring up another analogy from the wild kingdom, maybe the movement is like a bear that will hibernate for the winter. This bear could return leaner and meaner in spring ready to fight for the rights and means it has brought to the table.
This ferocious creature could be a force to contend with worldwide, and specifically during the American election cycle in 2012. Or it could be a carcass to be fed upon by the naysayers who feel that all of this fire was perhaps just hot air.
Occupy, you aren’t dead – are you?
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