OWS One Year Later: Still Waiting for a Second Act

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September 15, 2012; Source: Washington Post (Associated Press)

At the anniversary of the encampment in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, virtually every national newspaper ran a post-mortem this weekend on the Occupy Wall Street movement. The national movement that spread rapidly throughout major cities in the U.S. and overseas can still generate protest marches and marchers, but toward what end? In the NPQ Newswire, we often asked whether there was a second act to the Occupy movement (here, for example). A year after the first Occupy encampment, the second act seems to have fizzled.

The Associated Press story, which ran in several of the mainstream newspapers, focused mostly on the disarray of the Occupy governing process and the disintegrating series of meetings – which AP characterized as a “spectacle of fistfights and vicious arguments.”

We have a number of thoughts, not necessarily mutually exclusive or in any hierarchy of explanatory importance, as to why Occupy deteriorated:

  • When the police broke up the encampments, it became apparent that the encampments themselves were as much the reason for people to gather as the issues they were concerned about. These were countercultural encampments, more style and image than political substance. The audience was increasingly internal to the Occupy movement rather than external to the general public.
  • A focus on the 1 percent makes sense, except that for the bulk of poverty-stricken Americans, they are quite distant from the top 2 percent or 3 percent or 5 percent. Many of the logical public policies that might address the nation’s wealth divide cannot be so easily targeted on the sliver of the 1 percent.
  • Although the movement started with a focus on wealth and power inequalities, lots of additional political protest efforts attached themselves to the Occupiers, muddying the Occupy message and making it difficult to focus and connect with the one issue – inequality – that could grab and meld much of the population.
  • Among the most persistent strands of street protest recently have been anarchists and they were well in evidence in Occupy encampments and demonstrations. Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman may have been fabulous personalities in the history of early 20th century anarchism, but anarchism as a movement doesn’t resonate well with most Americans.
  • As Occupy developed, it latched on to anything it could find to maintain relevance, including standing up for a family here or an individual there who needed help and support in fending off some ostensibly malevolent government or banking interest, particularly around foreclosures. But this sort of “methodological individualism” never gelled into a more serious political program or structure and may not have been able to do so in any case.
  • The encampments themselves were a problem. The Occupiers never seemed to get that the persistence of the encampments in public parks (the sanitation problems, the frequent drumming, and more) alienated, shall we say, much of the 99 percent who would have seen themselves aligned with the movement’s focus on inequality.
  • While the core of the Occupiers’ message might have been the issue of the inequality gap in our society, the Occupiers’ political platform was inchoate at best. What were they asking of public officials? What were they pushing politicians to do? What were the specific demands? There weren’t any.
  • Over time, “Occupy” became an all-purpose appellation for protests about almost anything, and some of the spinoff efforts have had a little life. However, other developments with roots in Occupy, such as the “99% Spring” effort (described here on NPQ online), seemed transparently able to play off of the energies of Occupy, but to go a separate, distinct direction.
  • This will probably get a negative reaction, but Occupy struck many people as a white movement, when many of the people most clearly and negatively affected by the wealth and power gap are people of color. There were efforts to try to gin up Occupy’s reach into black and Latino communities and to attach Occupy to the legacy of the civil rights movement, but those efforts always felt hyped, strained, and artificial.

Any of these right or wrong? Add or subtract your explanations of the demise of the Occupy movement here. ­–Rick Cohen

  • ruth

    I wonder if we really need a second act for Occupy? It seems to me that much as in the way occupy grew as a loosely organized phenomenon embedded in a core issue of the times, maybe we should look to shorter and more loosely organized collective uprisings that build upon one another giving voice to critical issues but that produce powerful focused spinoofs with purpose. (please stop me if I am making no sense) I do agree that Occupy dropped the ball on organizing its voice around poverty in its attempt to find and surface the common ground powerful 99% imagery and concern. The lateness of its appearance in this campaign is testament to the shortfall.

  • Trish