Wearing an Occupy t-shirt in the summer of 2012 seemed old school—like wearing a Grateful Dead tie-dye. Occupy is so 51 weeks ago.
But where did that meme come from? Occupy hadn’t yet hit its first birthday before we were asked to believe that the most transformational American progressive political movement of the 21st century had died of old age.
This past Monday, the Occupy movement celebrated its first birthday. What began with a fringe band of demonstrators in lower Manhattan quickly spread its glowing embers across the planet, forcing a global conversation about social inequality. Now, just one year later, the corporate media has banded together to declare the whole movement over, down the memory hole.
The media always held the Occupy movement to high standards, demanding nothing short of revolution, then calling the movement a failure when it failed to transform society in its first few months. But the pundits could only envision their own notion of revolution—replacing one set of leaders with another, all within the confines of our two-party system. Occupy, however, never aspired to being an electoral party or player, like the Tea Party, which, once organized, was co-opted by corporate interests in a matter of minutes. Occupy instead wanted to transform the debate—to shift the zeitgeist. To a punditocracy reduced to quantifying electoral battles as horse races, reporting on electoral tactics rather than substance, Occupy made no sense.
Months went by and the Occupy movement didn’t yield its diverse voices to leaders, didn’t endorse liberal Democrats who would use them and sell them out, didn’t elect anyone to office. Measuring the only pulse the pundits knew how to take, they declared the movement dead. Yet almost everyone in public life today, a mere year later, speaks of the 99 percent, tries to speak to the 99 percent, or feebly feigns to be one of the 99 percent, as Ann Romney did when suggesting that her husband Willard formed Bain Capital while sitting with a bunch of buddies around their kitchen table, which I suppose we are to believe was a door propped up on milk crates. (The buddies, it turns out, were Salvadoran oligarchs tied to that nation’s death squads.)
Thanks to the Occupy movement, the American mainstream is doing something it hasn’t done in decades—discussing the taboo topic of social class in America. Yes, there is a class war. It’s been raging ever since Ronald Reagan was elected, ushering in three decades of spiraling economic inequality and a historically unprecedented upward grab of the nation’s wealth. The Occupy movement mainstreamed the conversation about this war. Now politicians must at least pretend to pander to the interests of the 99 percent. That’s revolutionary—at least for a one-year-old. By contrast, it took the women’s suffrage movement 72 years—from its first convention in Seneca Falls, until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920—to secure women the right to vote, and we’re still waiting for our first woman president. I’m sure pundits ridiculed that movement and declared it dead at many junctures during its persistent struggle.
The clearest example of this hopeful but premature obituary for the Occupy movement comes from the Associated Press, the cooperative of corporate news organizations whose canned articles appear verbatim in hundreds of major newspapers around the world. The AP’s piece, published on the first anniversary of the first Occupy demonstration on Wall Street, reads as if it was authored by someone who had never encountered the movement. It’s headline,“1 year after encampment began, Occupy in disarray,” misses the point. Occupy was always in disarray, which generally is defined as “lacking order or sequence.” That is Occupy’s tactic. It’s what makes Occupy powerful and inclusive. When your movement represents 99 percent of the population, it will never be of one mind, nor will it be neat or orderly. Democracy was never meant to be orderly. Hence, Occupy crowd-sourced and condensed a broad set of goals and values, but few specific demands.
The author of the AP piece, Meghan Barr, writes that Occupy Wall Street meetings broke down because “Nobody could agree on anything and nobody was in charge.” She’s accurate in that nobody was in charge, and consensus, given the large size of the assemblies, was often elusive. But she’s ignorant of the Occupy movement’s goals and values if she truly believes this is why the movement, as she argues, “disintegrated.” To the contrary, it’s because of this intellectual inclusiveness that the movement grew so fast. Everyone was welcome at the table, but not everyone would agree with everyone else about all issues.
But where there is agreement, there’s incredible power. We see this power in the fact that issues of social inequality, discussion of the one percent versus the 99 percent, are now everywhere. In contrast, Barr writes that “the movement is now a shadow of its mighty infancy, when a group of young people harnessed the power of a disillusioned nation and took to the streets chanting about corporate greed and inequality.” Today we don’t have to chant in the streets because Occupy hijacked the conversation. Today, even Republican candidates often couch their lies in the lingo of the movement.
The media liked the Occupy movement when it maintained camps, providing visual spectacle available anytime during slow moments in a 24-hour news cycle. The camps got the movement off the ground and gave it the media presence needed to launch its memes and spread globally. The post-camp Occupy movement is proving a bit too cerebral for a media machine that prefers shiny objects and flashing lights to substance. The subsequent phase of the Occupy movement has so far included teach-ins at libraries and universities, saving homes from foreclosure, helping workers successfully unionize, lobbying governments to divest fom criminal banks, creating homeless shelters, and evicting predatory lenders from college campuses. An Occupy group in California created a community farm. In New York, Occupy groups played a large role in pressuring the governor to extend the “millionaire’s tax.” Occupy groups pressured corporations to stop funding the American Legislative Exchange Council, which authored reactionary legislation sponsored by pro-corporate politicians in statehouses around the country.
These are all measurable activities or victories organized or won by disparate local Occupy groups. Occupy activists are now organizing student debt actions and voter registration drives. There are countless stories—and all of this, along with the entire camp phase of the movement, has transpired in just one year. During this time, a large plurality of Americans started to list the disparity between the rich and the poor as one of the nation’s most pressing issues. This is a fantastic track record for a one-year-old movement. And it is very threatening to the entrenched corporate interests who want us to believe that this movement is over—or better yet, that it never happened.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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