Where does Occupy go from here?

Historian Michael Kazin explains what the Occupy campaign can learn from past movements

Topics: Occupy Wall Street, ,

Where does Occupy go from here?

We’re a little more than a month into Occupy Wall Street, and there are signs that public interest in the protest campaign is cresting.

According to an analysis by Micah Sifry, the number of Facebook “likes” for Occupy groups, as well as the number of Occupy-related Google searches — admittedly crude tools for measuring public interest — appear to be leveling off.

Meanwhile, winter is approaching in New York and questions remain about whether the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg will allow protesters to continue the original occupation in lower Manhattan, which has become the heart of the movement.

For a historically informed take on the challenges and opportunities Occupy Wall Street faces, I spoke to Michael Kazin. He is professor of history at Georgetown and author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.”

We’re now a month-plus into this. Does Occupy Wall Street remind you of any past movements or does it seem like a fundamentally new type of thing?

This is the first time in a long time, perhaps since the 1930s, that the left — and I think this protest does belong to the left, though a lot of people who are involved in it wouldn’t call themselves that — has focused on economic injustice as a central issue. That is both new and of course harks back to the beginnings of the New Deal. At that time, most activists on the left were primarily targeting economic inequality — in the form of wages, the lack of democracy at work, and resistance by industrial corporations to recognizing unions. What’s obviously different now is that Occupy Wall Street has been put together by people who are  proud of being children of the Internet age: with horizontal organization, leaderlessness and consensus decision-making. The main tactic is about hanging out with and learning from one another. There is no sense of how the tactic will lead to either taking political power or having a big share of political power. This movement seems to think from tactic to tactic, rather than tactic to strategy.

Is there precedent for this kind of form and structure?

Many a protest campaign begins this way. The sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counters beginning in February 1960 had an end — desegregation of public facilities — but they weren’t quite sure of where it was going after that. They just thought, “This is a neat tactic that will draw attention.” And it did. That began with four students in Greensboro, N.C. But it soon blossomed, and now their lunch counter is in the Smithsonian. The movement against the Vietnam War also began with very small protests in 1964, and then grew into ones with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. So protests can grow and become catalysts for larger and more diverse movements.

The two examples you just mentioned had obvious, discrete goals they were trying to accomplish. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street has only a broad theme. Are there precedents for this?

There was Coxey’s Army in 1894, which was the first group to march on Washington. They were mostly unemployed people with a vague demand for public jobs. But they were basically just pissed off about the widespread depression of that era, and they were determined to compel Congress and the president to do something. Like Occupy, they did not have a well-worked-out agenda. Historians disagree about what effect the march had. But it certainly dramatized the situation of the poor and the unemployed, much as Occupy Wall Street is trying to do. People marched from around the country on Washington; they took freight trains, and hitchhiked on wagons, and walked a lot, too. It was very dramatic and the press covered it very widely. But the depression continued until 1897.

What can Occupy learn from history about how to sustain itself beyond the initial burst of interest and energy?

I think protests like this have to progress from tactic to strategy if they are going to endure. They have to either start their own organization — as the sit-in movement started SNCC — or link up with other organizations. The problem with that strategy  is that what’s gotten people’s attention is the clever, somewhat novel tactic Occupy is using — and the participatory, very small-d democratic nature of it. The next step will inevitably not be that clever and novel. But for it to go anywhere, the Occupiers have to figure out, to some degree, what kind of demands they want to make. That doesn’t mean they need a 12-point program, but maybe a three-point program. They have to figure out what sort of relationship they want to have with existing groups on the left. But with no leaders and everything run by consensus, how do you make these decisions?

What’s more likely to happen — and I think to some extent already is happening — is that this will become a catalyst for other people to do other kinds of things about economic inequality. I think it’s likely that Occupy Wall Street will be seen as a spark. I think it’s unlikely that people are going to stay in the park for month upon month unless they are homeless. Most people eventually will want to get on with their lives. In the end, a tactic, no matter how successful, is just a tactic.

You earlier made the distinction of a protest campaign versus a movement. What makes a movement?

I think a movement first of all has to be sustained. It has to have some sense of direction. It has to be able to assess when it’s succeeding and when it’s failing. And it has to have some kind of leaders. They don’t have to be elected, but I think it’s better if they are because then they are accountable. You don’t have to have one leader. For all the attention on Martin Luther King Jr., he was not the only leader of the black freedom movement. There were many, some in local areas, some as heads of national organizations. The better orators often became leaders, for better or worse

So where do you see Occupy heading?

The most optimistic way to look at it is that this protest campaign will be a catalyst for people working on issues of economic justice anywhere in the country and, to a degree, in other countries as well. The negative possibility is that this will devolve like the global justice campaign of a decade ago, which is best known for the Battle of Seattle in 1999. It seemed hugely exciting at the time. I wrote a long Op-Ed in the New York Times in which I predicted this would be the beginning of broad new attack on concentrated wealth, comparable to the populist movement in the 1880s and 1890s. But it fizzled. Its targets, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, were hard for most Americans to get excited about. In “American Dreamers,” I quote an activist who says it was pretty hard to get people to understand what the World Bank actually did. Occupy Wall Street is more visceral. Young people are afraid they’re not going to get jobs. People are unemployed. They are losing their houses. These are issues that everyone understands.

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>