In the fall of 2011, Lower Manhattan was awash with protesters. Wall Street bankers couldn’t go out for a coffee without being accused of ruining the planet. The media latched onto the story, and the Occupy movement spread to other cities across the country and around the world. For a moment it seemed as if something very big was happening.
But now, the camps are long gone, the protesters have dispersed, and nothing much seems to have changed. In this post, we’ll look at what went wrong the Occupy Wall Street movement, and what we can learn from it.
Why did the Occupy Wall Street Movement Fail?
The Central Issue: Inequality
The Occupy movement was aimed at highlighting inequality. One of its main slogans, “We are the 99%”, referred to the disproportionate amount of wealth owned by the 1% of Americans.
The latest figures show that 1% of the population own 35% of the wealth, while the bottom 80% own just 12% of the wealth.
It’s the same story with incomes. Inequality has been rising for decades, and is now the highest it’s been since 1928. 1% of the population now earns 22.5% of the income.
The Occupy movement had big plans in finding solutions to close this humungous gap in wealth. For one, the initial announcement about the protest in Adbusters magazine read:
“We demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”
The problem with the Occupy movement was that although its initial founders had a single, very clear aim, they were determined to be as inclusive as possible. True participatory democracy was central to the movement, and that meant not just having votes, but holding general assemblies at which anyone could block a proposed decision if they felt it violated an ethical principle.
This made it tough to get things done and to articulate a clear message. The open, consensus-based decision-making process also diluted the clarity of the initial demand, as hundreds of protesters introduced their own solutions and ideas, ranging from environmental justice to the legalization of marijuana. The impression to outsiders was of a movement that knew what it was against, but wasn’t so clear on how to fix it.
New York Times columnist Andrew Sorkin wrote, “Its mission was always intentionally vague. It was deliberately leaderless.” He said it was this leaderless structure that doomed it to being merely “an asterisk in the history books”.
The End: Crackdown
What actually ended the occupation was a coordinated crackdown by authorities. Police in riot gear cleared the main Zucotti Park camp in New York as well as others in different cities. Dozens of people were arrested, and dozens more were arrested when they tried to reoccupy their former camps in later months.
The movement had been founded from the start on the idea of physical occupation of a piece of land, so although it continued after the camps were broken up, it lost its central focus, and support ebbed away.
The Outlook – Did It Really Fail?
Even if they didn’t achieve dramatic change, the protesters at least raised awareness of inequality. A YouGov poll late last year showed that while most people thought the movement had either no impact or negative impact, 62% of respondents had read either a great deal or a fair amount about it.
Awareness of income inequality, the movement’s central concern, is now high, with 67% of Americans dissatisfied with income and wealth distribution. A majority believe the government should act to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
So although one lesson from the Occupy movement is that popular movements need to have clearly articulated aims and strategies, another is that large changes often happen slowly and incrementally. The Wall Street protesters may not have had a direct impact on inequality in America, but they started a conversation that is continuing in many different ways.
It’s possible that the Occupy movement will turn out to be not an asterisk in the history books after all, but the opening chapter of a story not yet written.
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