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One Year On, Has The Occupy Movement Lost Its Way?

Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement clash with police officers after being removed from Zuccotti Park in New York in November.
Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement clash with police officers after being removed from Zuccotti Park in New York in November.
WASHINGTON -- The Occupy Wall Street movement began on September 17, 2011, when a few hundred activists occupied a park in Manhattan’s financial district. They spent their days protesting corporate greed and their nights in drum circles and sleeping bags. Few people noticed.

That changed on October 1, when police used tear gas and pepper spray to break up a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge. Overnight, a local protest against economic inequality ballooned into a global movement.

Hundreds of local Occupy groups sprang up from San Francisco to Singapore. Peaceful street marches brought out thousands of people -- the employed and jobless, students and pensioners -- angry at the enormous concentration of financial power held by society’s top "1 percent."

The movement’s rallying cry became "We are the 99 percent."

One year later, the movement has largely disappeared from public view. A few protesters turned up at the NATO summit and U.S. political conventions, but its abrupt absence from the headlines and the streets has some people wondering: Did Occupy Wall Street burn brightly and then burn out?

"I think that’s a very common misconception," says Ed Needham, a member of Occupy’s press working group. "The number of things that Occupy's been doing has risen drastically. What we had was a very strong preoccupation with the physical occupation of [New York's] Zucotti Park. That was very attractive to the general media. So there was a strong emphasis on the physical occupation itself. And for us, while it was an incredible beginning tactic to get everything off the ground, it took considerable resources to maintain that physical occupation -- resources that could be better spent towards focusing on the injustices we want to shine a light on."

Fighting Foreclosures

So over the past several months, Needham says Occupy activists have been busy doing things like fighting bank foreclosures on homes, protesting what they say are excessively high interest rates on personal debt, and supporting striking workers. He says there are dozens of actions happening at any given time and working groups meet regularly to talk about issues.

Needham compares the Occupy movement to the U.S. civil rights movement, maintaining that it might take years but that ultimately it will succeed.

“Changing the status quo and addressing the situation where we have so much money and power in so few hands in our society -- it’s just going to take some time," he says. "And change will not come easily because there will be such resistance [by] those few who fear the loss of power. So this is going to take some time."

Still going strong? A police officer rides alongside an Occupy demonstration in New York in May.
Still going strong? A police officer rides alongside an Occupy demonstration in New York in May.

Occupy supporter and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich predicted as long ago as last fall that the public would be impatient for results.

"I can’t tell you what an influence you have had so far on the national conversation," he told a San Francisco rally on October 17. "[To] outside critics who say, 'Well, what do you stand for and what are your demands?' You tell them: 'Be patient. We know what we are about, broadly. We know we want a more just society. We know things have gotten completely skewed and out of whack.' Some people in the media, they're going to say, 'Oh, this is over.' It’s not going to be over. It's never going to be over. You can't stop this once it's started."

But Michael Lind, who studies economic issues at Washington's New America Foundation, not only thinks the Occupy movement is over, he believes it caused its own demise. He argues that its failure to advance a clear agenda with specific goals demoralized supporters and strengthened defenders of the status quo.

"I think one reason it has failed, to a large degree, is the absence of one or two or three demands, the absence of a program," Lind says. "I think that may have been fatal to the movement in hindsight; the inability to settle on a set of particular policy reforms."

National Conversation

However, Lind does praise the movement for making the issue of income and wealth inequality part of the national conversation. "I think if you did [an Internet] search of the term, '1 percent,' [you'll find] that this really has spread in a kind of viral fashion as a result of the original Occupy Wall Street movement, so I give them credit," he says. "If you say '1 percent' now, everyone knows what you’re talking about.”

But Lind believes the movement missed its chance to effect real change because activists were scattered all over the country. What Occupy should have done is organize a mass march on New York or Washington, like Martin Luther King Jr.'s 250,000-person March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. That would have "impressed the political elite," he says.

But organizing has been Occupy's biggest weakness from the beginning, when it embraced a "horizontal structure," which means no one leads, everyone gets a say, and decisions are made by consensus.

Protesting is just the first step on the path to change, explains Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and the author of "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation." To really create change, you need people who understand how to build a lasting movement.

"And that involves organizers," Kazin says. "People who can talk about tactics and strategy, who can deal with the media, deal with politicians, who really are organized for the long term and have some experience at doing this. And one of the problems the Occupy movement, I think, has had, is that it was very good at the protest stage but not so good at building an organized, durable movement."

Kazin says Occupy's critique of economic inequality still rings true around the world. And though it may be less visible, he believes the movement is still alive because activists continue to fight local battles for economic justice where they live.

According to Needham, no one he knows is thinking of giving up. Not until they've helped create an "economy that treats everyone fairly" and a "government that’s purely representational," he says.

"There's a lot left to do," he adds.