One year ago, Occupy Wall Street burst into sight. Reactions to it ranged from peculiar to ineffectual and even revolting. In truth, writes Todd Gitlin, it was both mysterious and deeply revealing of a national shift.
What erupted in lower Manhattan last fall was something between a moment and a movement, as the organizing theorist Marshall Ganz said. The Occupy flame caught - not only because of the ingenuity and audacity of a few hundred and then a few thousand young insurgents, but because they had found a way to give voice to the widespread feeling that plutocracy was an iron cage. One of the most popular chants on Occupy marches was, "Banks got bailed out; we got sold out." The movement's spunk and inventiveness were in the service of a deep-seated sense that the power of the plutocracy poses a moral crisis. The Occupy movement was thus an attempt at a moral revival.
Against all expectations - including the activists' own - the encampment near Wall Street, and its hundreds of spinoffs, were the core of a multifarious movement that attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators - then hundreds of thousands - making "1 percent" and "99 percent" household terms and drastic inequality a national concern. Occupy was able to target a small, self-dealing, overprivileged minority widely viewed as having damaged the common good while exploiting deregulation and corrupt politics to get away with financial murder.
The movement wrested the initiative from the Tea Party and quickly garnered popular sympathy. It used online networks to build up face-to-face communities - spaces to meet, argue, eat, take shelter, care for each other, shout, rant, drum, sleep, read, consult, learn, refuse to learn. It won points with a large public by confronting corrupt adversaries in whimsical and inventive ways. It brought hard-core activists - anarchists, revolutionaries, drifters, homeless people, desperate people, reformers of many stripes - together with a myriad of allies. These were people who wanted community, a new start, a society in secession or a society somehow of their own. When the police went for overkill - pepper spray, mass arrests - pictures of official abuse flew around the world. Support for the movement mushroomed.
Reform and revolution
The movement was famously unwilling to make specific demands, but the thrust was clear: "We are the 99 percent." The movement wanted all sorts of things, but there was an area of general agreement that a country needed strong reforms to redress the gross imbalance in wealth. But the Occupy camps were also revolutionary - in the American sense. They restated primordial revolutionary impulses.
They reignited the noble, small-r republican Enlightenment impulse which elevated public assembly to a high place, which is why the US Constitution has a First Amendment that doesn't just address freedom of religion, and speech, and the press, but explicitly specifies "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, to petition the government for redress of grievances." In the minds of the political class that ordered the clearing of the Occupy camps, this idea has become radical - as in a way, it is, going to the heart of the democratic idea that government of, by, and for the people requires that the people speak to each other.
Not many Americans are revolutionaries. Yet many of the prime movers in Occupy - the inner movement - were, indeed, anarchists and democratic radicals, desirous of self-government by directly democratic, "horizontal" assemblies. Yet the much larger numbers of people, probably by a factor of 100, who marched with Occupy on its days of maximum pageantry were middle-class people, union members, progressives of various stripes - not so photogenic, not outré, far more numerous. It was the combination of the verve of the inner movement and the numbers of the outer movement that remade the political landscape.
This was possible because Occupy was the first American social movement to begin with majority support for its main thrust - an auspicious beginning. Yet after the first few months, the movement's public appeal crashed. In August, more Americans said they didn't identify with Occupy "at all" than said they did identify even "a little."
One dedicated Occupy organizer, Shen Tong, began his political life in 1989, as a leader of Beijing's Tiananmen Square movement, then fled to the US, where he earned degrees, started a computing company, and then decided to devote himself to Occupy Wall Street. "There are two crises for a movement," he told me. "One is to be massacred. The other is to succeed." The "massacre" part is easy to understand. What did he mean by "succeed?" Why does it make sense to speak of the Occupy movement as a qualified success?
First, political culture changed. Over the months, the Occupy movement's terminology entered household language because it summed up the sense that the wielders of power are arrogant, self-dealing, incompetent, and incapable of remedying the damage they have wrought.
Second, the movement pushed conventional politics. The rise of OWS impressed even the Republicans, and led to the arch-conservative Newt Gingrich casting Mitt Romney as a predatory capitalist, a theme that proved unhelpful to Gingrich but very helpful to the Obama campaign. By and large, Democrats handled the movement gingerly, for fear that any more intense expressions of friendliness might tar them, but Barack Obama began to campaign by striking progressive chords.
Third, some of the biggest banks felt the heat. Some fees got rolled back. Pressure built up to roll back exorbitant "compensation" for bank chiefs. At last spring's Citigroup stockholder meeting, 55 percent of shareholders voted, albeit nonbindingly, against paying the CEO $14.9 million.
Fourth, some local movements rolled back home foreclosures and disrupted home actions set in motion by predatory lenders (including leading banks). This is solidarity with the 99 percent who do not want to invest their lives in assemblies but do have other ideas about what would improve their lives and might offer a good deal to a full-service movement - a movement that has a place for many kinds of people with many different levels of commitment and energy and belief.
Fifth, some public officials declared their commitment to full and mandatory public financing of elections, though it is unclear whether the larger "99 percent movement" will have the endurance and focus to hold their feet to the fire for the necessary years. State-wide and national coalitions for public-minded reforms are growing.
At the same time, city governments swept the encampments away. In Occupy's inner core, ideological and practical frictions prevailed. Fissures deepened. Some activists got into a go-for-broke mood, with no small assistance from intransigent authorities. Police became specialists in intimidation, deploying fences and noxious chemicals, even rolling out tanks. Shows of force fueled disruptive tactics. A few riots began. No matter who threw the first stone or smashed the first window, in the popular mind, collisions tended to play as the fault of the protest. The encampments did not always show that (to use their slogan) "another world is possible," except perhaps a more unsettling, even threatening world.
Now what? Occupy might still evolve into a long-lasting full-service movement by playing its cards right. For this, it needs to welcome a broad range of participants, not just the small minority who hunger for 100 percent participation in politics. Both radicals and reformers need reinforcements. Beginnings, however joyous, don't sustain the momentum that movements need if they are to leave big imprints.
There aren't nearly enough anarchists and revolutionaries to transform the country. The next phase, if there is to be one, would build on the platform created by Occupy. It requires a hard-headed appraisal of what's been accomplished and what hasn't. My own view is that Occupy 2.0 needs a reconfiguration. It should be powered by networks and organizations of many sorts. It can't be run horizontally - which exhausts too much energy.
One promising network could arise from the robinhoodtax.org campaign, led by the National Nurses United, aiming to load a trading surcharge onto the biggest, fastest investor-speculators. There could be a focus on a campaign to break up the so-called too-big-to-fail banks. There could be state initiatives for full public financing of elections. In any case, there should be focus, concrete demands, and a multiyear strategy. There needs to be space for full-time activists conducting nonviolent civil disobedience but also for larger and wider circles of people who sign petitions, work for candidates, demonstrate, lobby, and help elect politicians who can be moved, who can help by securing the movement more space to grow.
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you make politics in the country you have, not the country you wish you had. A moral upheaval cannot be exclusive and there aren't enough saints. What no one knows is whether a community will emerge that will, in the language of the civil rights movement, "keep its eyes on the prize" and at the same time appeal to a wide swath of Americans.
Todd Gitlin is a Professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University and author of the new book, "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street."