On the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, creative protests across the country are celebrating “a day of resistance and liberation.” Occupy has developed and spread in many directions since last year, accompanied by much speculation about its significance as a viable, long-term movement for social change.
In today’s Guardian, Frances Fox Piven analyzes Occupy in the context of historical movements. She writes:“The great protest movements of history lasted not for a moment but for decades. And they did not expand in the shape of a simple rising arc of popular defiance. Rather, they began in a particular place, sputtered and subsided, only to re-emerge elsewhere in perhaps a different form, influenced by local particularities of circumstance and culture.” “Movements that may appear to us in retrospect as a unified set of events are, in fact, irregular and scattered. Only afterwards do we see the underlying common institutional causes and movement passions that mark these events so we can name them, as the abolitionist movement, for example, or the labor movement or the civil rights movement. I think Occupy is likely to unfold in a similar way.” “And it will not subside quickly. Like earlier great movements that changed the course of American history, Occupy is fueled by deep institutional lacunae and inconsistencies. The mainly young people who are Occupy represent a generation coming of age in societies marked by an increasingly predatory and criminal financial capitalism that has created mass indebtness and economic insecurity. At the same time, the policies that once softened the impact of economic change (which some commentators once thought were necessary for the “legitimation” of capitalism) are being rolled back.”
Piven goes on to list two main tasks of movement building: communication and disruption (e.g. strikes, street actions, civil disobedience). Occupy has made effective use of these strategies in the past, but Piven points to the challenges every movement faces of sustaining the power of disruption. Although this is a point well taken, rarely does a disruptive surge or strategy suffice to carry a movement to permanent, meaningful victories. Piven misses some key movement building ingredients, such as ongoing local engagement and creating a vision based on shared principles.
Occupy Wall Street is, in fact, part of a sustained process of movement building in the United States that predates the first Occupy protests by many years. Occupiers have connected with these community-based efforts throughout the past year. Many initiatives take place at local or state levels, with community leaders reaching across different groups and constituencies and developing a shared language and vision that transcends single events and issues.
One such effort is the Human Rights at Home Campaign, a new umbrella for grassroots organizing groups that have gradually gained traction (and policy wins) by using a human rights frame. Only two weekends ago, on Labor Day, broad-based grassroots alliances in Texas and Vermont held parallel People’s Conventions for Human Rights, bringing together many hundreds of people from different grassroots movements to forge links and grow the power of their communities.
Today‘s Occupy gatherings at New York’s Zuccotti Park did not exude the disruptive kind of power that Piven demands. Instead, they felt like part of a long, slow process of building communities for change. That, too, is a key task of social movements.