Occupy Movement at the Crossroads

occupy oakland financial plannerTwo months after launching, the Occupy movement faces a critical test. Since drawing worldwide attention to the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, and becoming a powerful voice for “the 99%,” the movement has become ensnared in local battles over the right to camp in public places.

For some, the control of public space goes to the heart of the Occupier’s agenda, as the guardians of these spaces are seen as also protecting the 1%. For others, battles with local governments and police forces distract from focusing on Wall Street and the economic elite.

Regardless of how one comes down on this question, the media coverage and messaging of the movement has shifted from the 1% vs. 99% struggle to battles over the right to camp. And energies devoted to battling police at Occupy Oakland, Occupy Portland and other spaces are not being spent occupying banks, hedge funds, foreclosed homes, and other tangible targets of the initial Occupy drive.

Successful movements must be flexible enough to change tactics in the face of roadblocks, and activists’ camping in public spaces is not strategically necessary for the movement’s success.

In the past few days, police actions in Oakland and Portland (and at Wall Street’s Zucotti Park this morning) have highlighted the shift of media coverage of the Occupy movement from struggles by the 99% against the 1% to battles with police and local governments over the right to camp in public places. Public discussion of Occupy is also focusing on the struggle by campers to hold their turf, with abuses by financial institutions a secondary topic.

Public Squares vs. The 1%

Does a movement to redress income inequality have to camp overnight in public squares to succeed? I don’t think so.

Occupy galvanized the nation by highlighting the obscene control of the nation’s wealth by the 1%, and our political system’s inability to correct this. The takeover of a private park near Wall Street offered a perfect symbol for Occupy’s economic inequality message.

After Occupy Wall Street, activists in hundreds of other cities sought to replicate its transformation of a public space into a campaign headquarters. While many questioned sustaining such campgrounds come winter, the more imminent threat came from local authorities that did not want overnight camping in their public squares.

If the Occupy movement had originally emerged as a strategy to takeover public squares rather than to redistribute wealth, it would not have so captivated the world. Yet now we have activists across the nation rushing to defend Occupy campgrounds against police evictions, with many suggesting that reclaiming public space, rather than income inequality was what the movement has always been about.

randy shawThese expressions of solidarity with Occupy campers are understandable. But if the movement spends the next weeks battling police and local governments over public spaces, critical momentum will be lost and potentially dramatic direct actions highlighting inequality will not occur.

[poll id=”44″]With many religious groups, unions and nonprofits backing Occupy, there are plenty of available buildings in which activists can operate local chapters of the movement. The African-American civil rights movement, anti-war campaigns, and nearly every other social justice struggle has grown without supporters camping out in public places, so it is not clear why some believe Occupy’s success depends on this tactic.

A Movement in Infancy

The Occupy movement is less than two months old. Its remarkable success in its short life can cause us to forget the normal time trajectory for successful social movements.

The Civil Rights Movement had proceeded for decades before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in 1955, and it took another nine years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the key federal civil rights bills to pass.

Cesar Chavez began his quest to organize a farmworkers union in 1962, and it took thirteen years before the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was enacted.

The list could go on and on.

In every successful movement, tactics and strategies change as the situation demands. This flexibility overcomes roadblocks, and puts authorities on the defensive as they try to anticipate what activists will think of next.

The Occupy movement’s takeover of public spaces worked for a time, but has now become a diversion. There is no shame in abandoning a fight over camping in public spaces that was always a means to an end.

Wall Street does not fear battles between police and activists in Oakland’s Frank Ogawa (renamed Oscar Grant) Plaza. But it has to be concerned when thousands of non-campers march as part of the November 2 Oakland General Strike, raising the specter of ongoing direct actions targeting the 1%.

randy shawOn Thursday, November 17, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, CWA and the Laborers’ Union are joining with Occupy Wall Street and groups like MoveOn.org and the American Dream Movement for “We are the 99 percent” rallies. These events commemorate the two-month birthday of Occupy, and will hopefully be part of a refocusing of the movement on its original goals.

The eviction of campers is not a “defeat” for Occupy, nor even a setback. And if it redirects activist energies toward the 1% and away from local police, Wall Street and its allies will regret not pushing to allow the camping to continue.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron

Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.


  1. Ryder says

    First, there are no such things as corporations. They don’t exist. A building, with workers inside, doing productive work. Is it an “enterprise”? Is it a “business”? Is it a “corporation”?

    It is none of the above. It is a group of people working together to accomplish common tasks.

    Nothing more.

    That you would enslave such persons to be your “servants” is exactly OPPOSITE of what the nation was created to be.

    Where progressives have gone wrong is in their laziness.

    When “the people” were supposed to look after themselves, their families and neighbors, progressives got lazy and decided to turn those human duties over to government. “You do it for us… oh and by the way, tax the rich for the cash you need. Bye!”

    And in so doing, turned over massive amounts of power to government… buyer beware? Nope, have government consumer agencies police consumption. Learn a skill and use it to provide for yourself, or trade your labor for earnings? Nope… have government provide training, and jobs, and in the absence of both, simply give you cash and other subsidies. Get paid money for having babies.

    Educate your young? Sorry… not interested in such things… turn it all over to government.

    Save money for a rainy day? Not a chance. You have too much consuming to do… besides, if you find yourself out on the street, government will come to your rescue.

    Save for a retirement? Hell no. Government will save your money for you… and not only that… take that amount from your employer too… and hold it for you (except they spent it).

    Need the services of highly trained professionals to use their astoundingly complex and expensive tools to see to your every medical need… but you don’t want to pay them for what they give you? Of course not! Government will take money from someone else, and pay your bill for you.

    And the list goes on, and on, and on, and on.

    Next thing you know, government is deciding which businesses are to fail, and which ones are forced to live on… be it banks or General Motors.

    But to do all of these wondrous things for lazy progressives that want to free-load such a circumstance… government needs ***power***, and so progressives grant government power.

    The latest is that the government can now *force* you to buy commercial products, just because you are alive. No opt out. Buy insurance, or we will take your money and buy it for you. (Yes, the IRS is the enforcement arm of Obamacare).

    This ever expanding scope of power means that influence in Washington has greater and greater value. You want huge sums of taxpayer money? Well, the government now has the power to take it and simply give it to you… if you are connected.

    Progressives have created a monster of a government… who’s scope and reach is far beyond Constitutional bounds… with powers assumed out of thin air, and instead of protesting that, you call for more… government provided jobs, student loans that never have to be paid back, the best healthcare expensive technology can offer… and you get to ignore the cost.

    This powerful government is government that is ripe for corruption… fat and juicy. Solyndra knew the drill. It’s all about how well connected you are… and if you have the means to pay the government to give you what you want. For large organizations with money in the vault… be you “green energy” companies like Solyndra, or banks on Wall Street… it costs less to buy Washington power, than it is to earn money the old fashioned way… and so the corrupt show up in D.C.

    A less powerful government doesn’t have as much to sell.

    By driving up the power of D.C. you increase the corruption in DC. Corruption *****always***** centers around power, for it is pointless to do anything else.

  2. Jody Holder says

    I have been having the same thoughts.
    Specific targeted actions I think can work better.
    Only a small minority of people can actually camp-out day after night for an extended period of time, even though I know the movement they represent consists of millions of sympathizers.
    I hope that the police state tactics employed do result in lawsuits and courts declaring that police brutality must end and those responsible in prison, and the people do have a Constitutional right to peacefully assemble.
    The Move Your Money day I think was successful, and could be even more successful with the lessons learned in the last action. Educate people with small snippets of information that can strike a chord of recognition that we are all in this together. Have available small leaflets of information and links so they can learn more on their own, and then take specific actions.
    Have revolving specific boycotts/ actions that directly impact representatives of the 1%.
    Publicly shame police, politicians, and others who directly violate the Constitution or initiate, condone, or engage in violence against peaceful protestors. That could include posting pictures, descriptions, contact information through social media or on websites.
    Having specific marches/ rallies organized in such a way as to be able to draw the working class into being able to participate, such as having the march or rally on a weekend. Have as part of the rallies a teach-in type format too.
    The idea that this country was founded on the principle that the government shall be of, by, and for the people has been stolen from us. Its fruition was ripening in the late 60’s & 70’s and the elite started a campaign to not only stop it, but to reverse the ripening process. The promises contained within the Declaration of Independence must be fulfilled. It is that idea that must be re-invigorated and made a reality.
    We already Occupy America, now that fact must be turned into the power of the citizenry to control our governmental institutions and the corporations. They must be our servants. We do not, and refuse to be any longer, existing to serve their interests.


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