The Occupy Movement’s ‘Staying Power’
It is becoming widely accepted that the Occupy movement, which made headlines and changed the national conversation in the final months of last year, was largely dormant or in hibernation during winter. This conventional wisdom suggests that as late spring and summer approaches the United States is going to see a resurgence of Occupy movement because various Occupy groups are conscious that the movement has faded and has been putting together bigger actions to reclaim the spotlight.
This is essentially the view being promoted by a recent article in the New York Times by Michael Schmidt, who writes, “Six months after the Occupy movement first used protests and encampments to turn the nation’s attention to economic inequality, the movement needs to find new ways to gain attention or it will most likely fade to the edges of political discourse.” Though, given how poor political discourse is in America, one might argue it has already faded to the edges.
Schmidt finds this statement represents what “supporters and critics” are saying. He quotes Neera Tanden, president of the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress. She tells Schmidt, “They have fewer people, and it’s not a new story anymore that there were people protesting in the streets or sleeping in parks.”
Paradoxically, after highlighting the role law enforcement has played in making the Occupy movement “less visible,” Schmidt mentions two police officials from Oakland and New York. They told Schmidt about how there have been less protests, no more encampments and fewer people at rallies and marches. It isn’t clear if Schmidt asked these officers if the departments thought they were responsible for this drop-off in activity or if Schmidt considers the police to be supporters or critics.
Schmidt then goes on to presume that the issue Occupy has is it is not more like the Tea Party. It does not “engage in conventional political organizing in support of state legislators and members of Congress.” The movement does not see “electoral politics as the best avenue for the movement, complicating efforts to chart its direction.” Which is all interesting how less than two years after influencing an election, the Tea Party is grossly irrelevant and has outlived its value. If Occupy is interested in being around for the long term, it would seem the last thing they should do is wed themselves to politicians they think can transform a political party from within.
The most interesting part of the article is in the bottom portion. Schmidt outlines how the Occupy movement now garners limited attention in the media:
News coverage of Occupy has fallen off significantly since late last year, according to an analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
In October, coverage of Occupy made up 6 percent of the news generated by news organizations in the United States. That number climbed to 14 percent in the middle of November and then slid to 1 percent in December. The number remained below 1 percent in January and February and has been so small this month that the Project for Excellence in Journalism said it was equivalent to no coverage.
Although the coverage has fallen off, concerns about economic opportunity and equality are at the highest levels since the mid-1990s.
Schmidt also mentions a poll from Pew Research Center on whether Americans agreed with Occupy or not. Michael Dimock, an associate director for research at the Center, said, “The movement was not in the news as much coming into 2012, and the nation’s focus and our polling turned to the Republican primary.”
It all raises the question: Has Occupy movement activity dropped off so much that there is reason to believe the movement is in jeopardy or is it “less visible” because it is not a beat reporters are covering as much anymore?
Certainly, there are less encampments and that has had a noticeable impact on the movement’s ability to effectively organize. The encampments were key to the movement’s growth. Citizens could not avoid seeing Occupy encampments in their community. The encampments took on an allure that transformed them into an attraction. Families would walk by and take pictures. A few would even engage occupiers in conversation. But now, a movement that once had hundreds of encampments has less than fifty encampments because mayors (many of them Democrats) have ordered law enforcement to clear out any camp in their city.
Cities have also seen officials craft new rules, regulations or laws to make it impossible for encampments to exist and grow. Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett examined this development and wrote:
…[A] new strategy is being deployed to yank the rug from under occupations in four cities: legal power. Politicians have recently passed laws in Honolulu and Charlotte, N.C., that with a stroke of the pen made the occupations illegal, enabling police to sweep them away. Two more occupations, in Boise, Idaho, and Nashville, may be nearing the end as their respective state legislatures are on the verge of outlawing the democratic villages that for months have been thriving next to edifices of power. Critics charge that the anti-Occupy laws reveal how the law is not an objective code that treats everyone equally, but an arbitrary weapon wielded by the powerful…
On top of that, it is an election year. Movements typically get swallowed up or wholly suffocated in elections. Just note what happened to the antiwar movement in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Each time the antiwar movement gained momentum, the energy died as citizens let grassroots energy fade and chose to vote Democrat and push the President or members of Congress to end the wars.
Putting hope in elections proved to be a debilitating and demoralizing decision. While President Barack Obama and Congress didn’t necessarily prolong the Iraq War, it didn’t seriously move to end it either. And, with regards to the Afghanistan War, Democrats under the leadership of Obama branded it “the Good War” and now there is no end in sight and it is just as much a quagmire as the Iraq War (if not worse).
Truth is, Occupy would be in a much more abysmal state if it hadn’t survived winter and kept up encampments. Firedoglake viewed the encampments as critical. FDL established liaisons with many of the Occupy groups that had camps and helped groups sustain camps with the Occupy Supply campaign. I took three trips in the Midwest, Great Lakes and Northeastern regions of the United States and toured Occupy camps delivering supplies and covering many of the Occupy groups I visited so people could see occupiers were still “occupying” even though it was winter.
When considering how law enforcement, new legislation, media inattention, and election madness has all combined to have an effect on the power of the movement, isn’t it amazing that they are still around? But all along the media has sneeringly or skeptically promoted doubt about the potential of Occupy and been wrong.
They displayed scorn for the movement in the beginning by suggesting Liberty Park had become a place for stinky and smelly hippies to play bongos and drums and have sex and smoke pot and do drugs. They expressed their concern with the fact that Occupy Wall Street had no demands or message unifying them. They suggested the occupiers did not know what they were protesting and that the leaderless movement could not possibly go far. They wrote articles suggesting the movement was aimless and unable to figure out where to go next.
The reality is these journalists did not know where the movement would go next. They were projecting their anxiety onto the occupiers. They were expressing their angst over the pace of the occupation because they were lazy or tired of covering the “Occupy” movement. They wished to tune out and move on to the next fad in journalism—the GOP presidential primary.
It is natural to doubt in reporting. It is not reasonable for anyone to attempt to command any media outlet to not question occupiers when they say their movement will surge in the coming months. However, the media’s track record on the Occupy movement is one that has involved constant reminders that what Occupy was doing needed to be different or else. And collectively the media could not have been more wrong in their advice to occupiers because the movement still exists and many of the groups that have faded are planning to renew their activism.
The Occupy movement has not been perfect. There are several Occupy groups that have collapsed as a result of infighting. There are also several Occupy groups that didn’t make enough connections in their community or adopt enough of a future focus so, when they were run out of their camp by police, they had no idea what to do next.
For Occupy groups trying to renew their energy, filmmaker Michael Moore has some advice: (1) use humor and satire to get your message out; (2) be creative with protest; (3) use social media; (4) recruit; (5) don’t have too many meetings; (6) be kind to each other.
Additionally, I’ll add, since the media finds the clown show that is the GOP primary more interesting and important, now is the moment for each group to examine how they started, what has happened, what kind of impact they had and what they could do better to be a force of change within their community. The media doesn’t really expect anything from Occupy right now. The broader American population thinks Occupy is largely a thing of the past. So, this is a good time for rebuilding and renewing aspects of the movement that need to be polished and refreshed before big actions that are planned in the coming months.