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A Research on Occupy Wall Street Movement in The United States

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The Occupy Movement was a nonviolent public protest, which saw thousands camped out in Zuccotti Park in New York in September 2011, directed at Wall Street and the perceived corruption of powerful corporates and their supporters in politics. It has been described as a “campaign to reverse the accretion of plutocratic power” because the majority were drowning under debt, taxes and unemployment, while the “Banks got bailed out” and “thrived with impunity.” (Gitlin, Occupy’s Predicament) The ‘Occupiers’ were said to have been inspired by the Arab spring and the anti-austerity protests in Greece earlier that year. Their movement is credited with successfully ingraining the idea of the languishing “99 percent” versus the obscenely wealthy “1 percent” into the psyche of American public discourse. They also focused a spotlight on the crippling student debt issue and inadequate minimum wage question. Their seismic message caused tremors in countless American cities who all saw their own Occupy movements erupt. But as many observers noted, the movement failed to create tangible results in policy or legislation: as Chris Macdonald puts it, the main achievement of the Occupy movement was more “cultural” rather than “economical.” In his opinion, “wall street needs to be fixed not occupied” and solutions for the massive financial inequity needs to come through careful analysis from within the economic system coupled with balanced legislation and cannot be rectified by a “sit-in.” The Occupy movement was a vital, cathartic expression of the pent-up anger and hopelessness felt by the 99 percent, but it was an inadequate means of protest because it lacked clearly defined goals, it neglected to expand its spectrum of allies, it refused to engage the power structures present at the time and it failed to initiate any practical changes in the government or corporate sector.

For any social movement to be successful it must have clearly defined goals. The occupiers devised the inspirational slogan “we are the 99%” which resonated with many, but it had no leadership structures to guide the movement, no clear demands nor specific goals according to Joe Nocera. Their anger was directed at the existing financial systems and corporate hegemony in politics, with no specific strategy for change. This lack of clarity of purpose diffused their message and critics dismissed them as being a disorganized, disgruntled group of young people. In addition to that, their message was flouted by the mass media who focused more on the character and behavior of the occupiers, as Todd Gitlin noted, “When it [the Occupy movement] arrived, a host of journalists and pundits, whether or not they approved of the politics of plutocracy, pronounced it peculiar, incomprehensible, dangerous, evanescent, and ineffectual, if not revolting.” In sharp contrast, history’s most successful social movements were characterized by sharp focus and clear demands. For example, Gandhi, who led India to freedom had one explicit demand: the end of British colonial rule. This helped mobilize the entire country under one banner. The Occupiers refused to articulate clearly defined goals and demands that would focus all its energies on a specific plan for change, therefore, it was an inefficient means of protest.

Once a clear strategy for change is decided, it is imperative to move on to gathering the support needed for a social ideology to become reality. For any social movement to progress towards creating a revolution, its activists must “shift its spectrum of Allies,” which means that rather than overpowering your opponents, you weaken the opposition’s support base by winning over more and more people to your side. You start with those who actively support your cause and move on to the ‘undecided,’ and don’t stop until you’ve convinced some of the opposition’s more passive members.” (Russell, Beautiful Trouble) For example, Martin Luther King started his campaign with Southern blacks but could not have been successful without the support of the Northern whites who eventually joined him.

In addition to a massive base of supporters, successful movements require a leadership hierarchy which is able to negotiate with influential organizations, but the Occupy movement was often described as horizontal or rhizomal, which could be defined as a social movement characterized by “self-management, autonomy and direct democracy” (Sitrin, “Horizontalism and the Occupy Movements”). In other words, they actively eschewed leadership and repudiated engaging powerful or influential ‘higher-ups’. As a result of this horizontal mindset, the Occupiers were often suspicious of the intentions of labor unions and large organization like “Moveon” who had shown interest in supporting their cause. (Gitlin) Not only did they neglect shifting their spectrum of allies, but they also refused to engage the existent power structures. For any social movement to be successful it must appeal to people or organizations who control the power in society such as government, police, media, etc. The occupiers viewed the entire political system as infiltrated by the powerful corporates, so they refused to engage politicians in their quest for justice and inequality. However, as Nocera explains, to make long term changes to policy and legislation one must inspire change within the existing power structures. This was another issue that weakened the Occupy movement.

Another feature of an efficient mass protest is to be proactive rather than reactive. In other words, they must be protesting against a particular action of the government and not only responding to outrage as a group. A good example of a proactive stance by a social movement would be the Women’s Walk that took place in Poland recently against new abortion laws which made the authorities reconsider their decision on the matter. The reactive stance of the Occupy movement reduced its effectiveness in the long run.

Equally important for a successful social movement, is to have an ‘after plan’, a clear blueprint for dealing with reality in the event of success. The lack of such a clear plan discouraged the participation of some people who were wary of the Occupy protest after seeing how the Arab spring in Egypt had inspired change, but soon after slipped back into chaos and totalitarian rule again. The Occupiers suggested no clear blueprint for what the changed system would look like post-victory, and this was another weakness in their strategy for change.

In summary, a growing number of Americans “… agree that the power of money in politics needs to be curbed, that taxes should be more progressive, that the too-big-to-fail banks were a pyramid of negligence…and that the government has, by and large, been their handmaiden…” (Gitlin) and this shows that the majority believes in the revolutionary ideals of Occupy. In fact, no one can deny the way Occupy became a rallying cry for equality and justice for society. Moreover, it has the potential to grow to epochal proportions and is an ideal worth standing up for again and again. Indeed, a second ‘revamped’ revival of Occupy is imminent and it will surely be a force to reckon with, provided its members articulate clearly defined goals, comprehensive strategy and forge strong collaborations with all levels of society.

Works Cited

  • Gitlin, Todd. “Occupy’s Predicament: “The Moment and the Prospects for the Movement.” British Journal of Sociology, vol. 64, no. 1, Mar. 2013, pp. 3–25. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12001.
  • Macdonald, Chris. “The Occupy ‘Movement’, two years later”, Canadian Business, 17 Sept 2013, 0search.ebscohost.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=url,ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=90323435&site=ehost-live, Accessed 20 June 2019.
  • Nocera, Joe. ”Two Days in September”, The New York Times, 14 Sept 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/09/15/opinion/nocera-two-days-in-september.html, Accessed 16 June 2019.
  • Russell, Joshua, K. “Shift the spectrum of allies”, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, beautifultrouble.org/principle/shift-the-spectrum-of-allies/, Accessed 16 June 2019.
  • Sitrin, Marina. “Horizontalism and the Occupy Movements,” Dissent Magazine, 2012, www.dissentmagazine.org/article/horizontalism-and-the-occupy-movements, Accessed on 16 June 2019.

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