Occupy: Five Things The Movement Did Well

Occupy Wall Street (Creative Commons).

From its origin on Wall Street to its re-creation in Los Angeles, the Occupy movement has spanned from coast to coast, cropping up in various cities and media coverage across the nation. The movement has been criticized for not having defined demands or goals, and some question whether the movement has had a tangible effect on politics. Nevertheless, Occupy has had notable accomplishments in the last year.

Captured attention and sparked interest

If political activism had a popularity contest for 2011, chances are Occupy would win. Within weeks of the first Wall Street camp, the movement had gone viral – across news publications, social media and the nation. But more importantly, it encouraged discussion about politics, specifically inequality.

“It engaged people who have not been much involved in politics,” said Michael Rotkin, former Santa Cruz mayor and lecturer at UC Santa Cruz.

“It did draw a lot of new people into political activism,” he said of Santa Cruz’s Occupy movement. “[People asked], ‘how can we change our country? How come decisions are all being made by the one percent?’”

Created a new language

The movement’s iconic “We are the 99 percent” slogan was a powerful, memorable statement for discussing inequality. It also created the “shorthand codes” for discussing these issues, according to Vanessa Beasley, a political expert at Vanderbilt University.

“Given that class differences have historically been difficult to talk about within U.S. politics, where we like to believe that class distinctions are malleable due to the American Dream, the language of Occupy gave us a new vocabulary, and that’s important,” Beasley wrote in an email.

She explained how terms like “the one percent” and “the 99 percent” have been repeatedly used in political conversations and campaigns to succinctly reference class conflict. Politicians have adapted this language for addressing voters in the 2012 election.

“The new language provided by Occupy doesn’t necessarily create any electoral pressures for politicians; it just made them reconsider how they talk about those voting records,” Beasley said.

Changed the political conversation or context

“One of the big successes of the Occupy movement was that it didn’t fit in the traditional mold of parties and structures,” Rotkin said. “It seemed quite popular, not manufactured by the regular players in political life.”

By igniting interest on a national scale, “[Occupy] changed the conversation,” Rotkin continued, “and I think that the results of that are not insignificant.”

There is still some question, however, of the effect the movement has actually had on influencing politics.

“I don’t think the Occupy movement itself ever made the transition to a pragmatic political organization, or even movement that is in any position to implement anything,” Rotkin said.

Despite praises of the movement, the conversation created by Occupy has been “all talk and no action,” wrote Larry M. Bartels, a social science professor and author of “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.”

Citing a YouGov survey of national opinions on progressive tax structure, Bartels wrote, “there is remarkably little evidence here that the public as a whole has moved to the left on the most significant policy question currently bearing on the issue of economic inequality — or even that the public has become increasingly engaged in that debate over the past year.”

The survey, conducted last December, asked Americans their opinion on progressive taxing, extending Bush-era taxes cuts and other tax policy proposals. It found that there has been little change in responses between 2008, 2010 and 2011. The poll also showed the little effect this national discussion will have on the overall election.

“So far, at least, neither the president nor the Occupy Wall Street movement has succeeded in transforming general public support for the principle of progressive taxation into effective support where it counts — at the polls,” Bart wrote.

Raised free speech questions

Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris was arrested last year during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge. He has since become an important name in a precedent-setting court case about free speech and social media.

The presiding judge, Matthew Sciarrino, forced Twitter to surrender Harris’s tweets, ruling, “people have little or no constitutional rights in what they publish on social media,” GigaOM reported.

Occupy protesters’ use of Twitter and other social media sites was absolutely critical to the movement’s success. This use is now being used as an example for governing future free speech debates.

“Once you post something on Twitter, Facebook, anything else, it’s public so it’s just like any other public statement,” explained J. David Sackman, a lawyer specializing in First Amendment litigation. “You have the right to free speech but you also are responsible for the use of that right.”

Many have expressed discontent with Sciarrino’s decisions in the case, questioning the validity of subpoenaing Twitter information.

“[The courts] need to be very clear about what they’re doing or it could backfire,” Sackman said.

United citizens

Most of the criticism surrounding the Occupy movement deals with the overall lack of direction. Because the movement didn’t have established leadership, it was essentially unable to create a list of principles or demands, preventing the movement from enacting political change directly.

The benefit, however, was allowing people of all different opinions and positions to take part and unite under this all-encompassing mission.

“Occupy didn’t have specific demands…but it did invite people (even distant onlookers) to think about their relationships to other citizens,” Beasley wrote. “We have not seen that captured so clearly, especially in visual imagery circulated via mass media, since the Civil Rights era.”


Read more of Neon Tommy’s coverage on the Occupy movement here.

Reach Staff Reporter Karla Robinson here.


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