A year ago on September 17, the Occupation of Zuccotti Park began, with a beautiful poster and far less participation and promise than it soon showed. Journalists and activists want to make sense of what’s left now that the Occupations are gone. There will be commemorations and evaluations everywhere. (I participated in one yesterday at Marketplace; the 20 minute interview condensed to 5-7, which is how these things go.)
Most evaluations are unlikely to be very optimistic. Occupations across the United States–and around the world, were surprising, very visible, disruptive, and unpredictable. The organization was confusing to outsiders, and the goals of the occupations were hard to pin down, not the least because activists differed in both their ultimate objectives and in their visions of how to achieve them. Occupations saw their diversity as a strength, and were reluctant to adopt organizations that silenced or back burnered anyone. In the name of democracy and horizontalism, nothing very specific came to the fore. But critics were reluctant to acknowledge the very clear concerns with political and economic inequality.
The unwieldy and time consuming governance at the Occupations made it hard for Occupiers to agree on anything beyond continuing their encampments, and local governments refused to let them do so. Once the occupations ended, Occupy was a lot harder for journalists to cover and to make sense of, and much less visible to a broader public. To be sure, meetings and actions continued, but without an overarching unity. And if you weren’t following the right sites or plugged into an active network, Occupy just slipped from visibility.
Elections crowd out social movements in America, sucking up attention, activists, and money. Many people redirect their efforts from issues to candidates, compromising a message for a messenger.
The Tea Party, still visible in national politics, mostly through a few Washington-based groups and the Republican Party, has made this move vigorously. With some disappointment, Tea Party organizations and activists have embraced their 29th choice for the Republican nomination, Governor Mitt Romney because, whatever his flaws, they see him as preferable to another term of President Obama.
Occupy activists were determined not to let this happen, to face a fate like that of the movement that helped provoke them, to wind up sucked in and sold out by a politician who would use them offering only slight reforms. They refused to build formal organizations, open national offices, or endorse candidates, emphasizing the grassroots as an alternative approach. But there are risks associated with that strategy as well: lack of a clear message, lack of visibility, difficulties in mobilizing broadly, and difficulties in influencing mainstream politics. That’s what we now see.
So, activists are trying to use the anniversary to revivify Occupy–or at least remind Americans that they and their concerns are still out there.
#S17NYC, representing the 99 percent, will work to resume an Occupation “with non-violent civil disobedience and flood the area around it with a roving carnival of resistance.” Several groups have already turned out to protest, and police have arrested dozens of would-be Occupiers in New York City and elsewhere. The authorities will certainly be better prepared and less tolerant of Occupations than they were a year earlier.
It will be hard to re-raise a mass movement during the last phase of the electoral campaign, but Occupy campaigns across the country will continue to search for events and issues that will spark the imagination in the same way that the first Occupation did.
In the meantime, thousands of young people cut their political teeth sleeping outside in public spaces around the United States. They’re not done, even if we don’t see what they’re doing now.