December 15, 2011 | Brooklyn College
Brooklyn, N.Y.—Several weeks since the encampment in Zuccotti Park was dismantled, Occupy Wall Street is still struggling to find its footing. Demonstrations continue around the country; on Dec. 12, protesters up and down the West Coast banded together to shut down ports from Seattle to Los Angeles. However, with no concrete agenda, no designated leaders, winter approaching and polls demonstrating waning popularity, the Occupy movement is at a crossroads, and protestors are scrambling to regroup and reorganize.
We decided to take this opportunity to ask some of our faculty members who specialize in sociology, history and labor movements to share their analysis of the Occupy movement, a movement that took root in our backyard.
What are some of the commonalities between Occupy Wall Street and social movements of the past?
“One common pattern is the ability to not just obtain but to sustain media attention. Social movements, by definition, spring into existence in large part because their members don’t possess sufficient ability to influence policymakers, so they need to mobilize to achieve popular pressure. If the movements cease receiving attention, they can’t possibly succeed.
“Of course, what constitutes ‘media attention’ has changed over time — from The New York Times and three network news programs of Martin Luther King Jr.’s era to the far more diverse media environment of today — but the goal remains the same.” — KC Johnson, Professor of History
Isn’t the word “occupy” problematic for a progressive movement to use, since it harbors negative connotations for leftists, such as colonization, imperialism and tyranny?
“We should not underestimate the power of movements to redefine words in ways that are exactly the opposite of what they traditionally mean. ‘Occupy’ had political connotations in the late 20th century that were assigned to issues of protest and social change. They are keeping in that tradition and remaking the older notions of ‘occupy’ and ‘occupation.'” — George Cunningham, Professor of Africana Studies
Why aren’t there any leaders of this movement?
“We are a really individualistic, narcissistic culture, so it’s no wonder why the media keeps asking ‘where is the icon?’ The Wall Street occupation is horizontalism, a concept created after the economic crisis in Argentina. Practices of self-determination and self-governance tried to break away from these vertical hierarchies and disseminate power among working groups.
“These horizontal movements are forms of governance that are a change from what we’re used to in everyday life. It offers more forms of democratic participation; it is trying to reshape what democracy looks like.” — Alan A. Aja, Assistant Professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies
As an expert on the history of policing tactics, what are your thoughts on the NYPD’s handling of Occupy Wall Street?
“I think the police continue to misunderstand the nature of this protest event. They really disregard the core spirit of the First Amendment. They are obsessed with order maintenance and use a broad array of techniques to try to micromanage these demonstrations. When that micromanagement breaks down, they quickly resort to violent arrests and excessive use of force.” — Alex Vitale, Associate Professor of Sociology
Now that protestors have been evicted from Zuccotti Park and other encampments around the country, does this mark the beginning of the end for the Occupy movement?
“Whether or not there is an encampment has never been the key issue about the future of Occupy Wall Street. Enough forces are on the move — community organizations, labor unions, students — that the momentum has been created. The underlying forces that have this thing going are going to continue. Displacing it from the park in some ways makes it more clear that this is a broad movement and not just about who is sleeping there overnight.” — Alex Vitale