‘Occupy’ Protests at a Crossroads

Occupy Wall Street and related protests around the United States enjoyed surprising success in getting across a powerful message about economic inequality in America. But now the movement is at a crossroads both internally and externally, as Danny Schechter explains.

By Danny Schechter

A week ago, I produced a TV documentary on inside the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York. It was already somewhat obsolete by the time it aired.

The Park, once a buzzing center of debate and open-air meetings, has gone residential in the sense that virtually every square inch of what was a half-acre political terrarium is now dominated by tents, an effort to insure more protection from the elements and some better level of personal security.

Protesters at Occupy Philly (Photo by Ted Lieverman)

As private spaces proliferated, public space shrunk. Now, public health officials are raising the prospect of the spread of germs while violent incidents in other cities have police nationwide threatening to shut down the occupations in the name, of course, of preserving public safety.

The first such operation happened in Oakland, a town with a long history of police violence that was on display when cops overran the camp, seriously hurting an Iraq veteran, and triggering a call for a General Strike. Now the gendarmerie are hoping to shut it all down, citing three deaths in Occupy encampments around the country, including a shooting death on Thursday.

The Digital Journal reports: “Police warned that the camp was illegal and that protesters face arrest if they did not break up the camp. Police have lately been complaining about the presence of the camp, saying it was drawing needed personnel from policing crime in the city.

“An open letter the Oakland Police Officer’s Association issued after the shooting, said: ‘With last night’s homicide, in broad daylight, in the middle of rush hour, Frank Ogawa Plaza is no longer safe. … Please leave peacefully, with your heads held high, so we can get police officers back to work fighting crime in Oakland neighborhoods.’ …

There followed two more tragic events that Occupy organizers deny they had anything to do with:

“On the same day the Oakland shooting occurred, a military veteran from Chittenden County committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The incident occurred in an Occupy tent in City Hall Park, Burlington, Vermont. … A similar tragic event occurred at the Salt Lake City Occupy encampment on Friday. A man was found dead in his tent. Police suspect he died from a combination of drug use and carbon monoxide.”

These incidents are being blamed on the occupations and may become the pretext for another effort to crush the movement. That could lead to bloody confrontations that the movement may not be able to win. Already, police are infiltrating, as this video makes clear.

At the same time, Occupy Wall Street may be facing a fork in the road as the protest movement wrestles with how to become a more effective political force.

The tension between achieving reforms through protests and promoting a deeper revolution is evident in intense debates and discussions that take place outside the park in churches and at an atrium at 60 Wall Street, a public space next to the Deutsche Bank building,

So at various points in the days, bankers leaving their offices unknowingly walk by intense circles of people in far funkier and more practical clothing huddled into circles to discuss strategies and tactics in work groups operating on principles of open discussion and an effort to find consensus.

Some activists are critical of too much internal discourse and not enough external outreach, especially to the communities hardest hit by the economic crisis. There are many meetings about coordination, facilitation and a “spokescouncil” that could supplant their open-to-all General Assembly,

Many are aware that the movement’s current base may not be more than 1 percent of the 99 percent they march in the name of. Maybe even less.

They know that their chances of securing the changes they want are tied to creating campaigns and organizing strategies that are less counter-cultural and more political, campaigns that can mobilize workers, communities of color and campuses struggling under the weight of student debt and bleak futures in the job market. This takes toning town some of the rhetoric political style that drives the movement.

Can this movement go beyond using the digital technologies that appeal to the young and the hip, and, also, shape a communications campaign with ads in newspapers and PSA’s and even political infomercials on Cable TV? This will be needed if the movement is to penetrate deeper into small towns, the suburbs and the “fly over” regions of Middle America.

Can it build organizations that people can join — and identify with?

At the moment, these “leaderless” activists see this approach as more manipulative that participatory but how else can they convince people unlike themselves – people without histories of radical political activism or union militancy to feel comfortable in a youth dominated harder-edge movement with its unique mix of direct activism and small “d” democratic idealism?

Occupy is very strong when it comes to creative tactics, but what is the longer-term strategy? How will it have a change to shape and implement one?

I picked up a copy of scholar Gene Sharp’s how to make a non-violent revolution manual called “From Dictatorship To Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” at the People’s Library in Zuccotti Park.

Now published in 34 languages, it offers a detailed primer on how people’s movement’s can topple tyrannies. It itemizes the ideas and techniques that powered movements in many countries including Egypt, Tunisia and Serbia. You can get it online from Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution.

The Serbian movement, OPTOR, that helped overthrow the Milosovic regime with protests in Belgrade have since become specialists in training activists and orchestrating uprisings. They have advised movements in Egypt, and some of their key people have had conversations and perhaps more interaction with Occupy Wall Street. (The General Assembly of Occupy is now sending one of its activists to Egypt.)

They do have a lot to teach using print, video and videogames. However, their work has raised eyebrows and led to suspicion, and even conspiracy mongering with “revelations” that their actions, which have included aiding the “Color Revolutions” in Ukraine and Eastern Europe are funded or directed by the CIA.

As a veteran CIA investigator, I am not persuaded by the “evidence” since Washington more often resembles “the gang that can’t shoot straight” than effective non violent change-makers. Washington’s dismal failures outnumber the few successes (which doesn’t mean these operatives don’t cause harm or negatively affect political outcomes).

There is a British-made film, “The Revolution Business” (Journeyman Pictures), with an unmistakable anti-American orientation that stirs fears of devious covert scenarios all made in the USA. You can watch it on You Tube.

Be mindful that all movements for social change have their own internal contradictions and rivalries, and that when movements develop traction, many forces want to use and manipulate them, including governments and groups with every point of view. Most don’t succeed.

You have to be careful about connecting dots that may seem to connect but in reality don’t. As critics of Freud said years ago, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The question is: can Occupy Wall Street, with all its dynamism and commitment find ways to sustain itself and gain new momentum? I am betting that it will – but movements can move on more than one track at the same time without compromising integrity. There is so much to do and so many people with whom to win over and engage.

News Dissector Danny Schechter writes about Occupy Wall Street on Al Jazeera, Progressive Radio Network other outlets and his newsdissector.com blog. He made the film Plunder the Crime Of Our Time. (Plunderthecrimeofourtime.com) Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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6 comments on “‘Occupy’ Protests at a Crossroads

  1. stan chaz on said:

    There will always be people that try to deny the right of American Citizens to have their say, and to demand change. This does not alter the basic facts: America USED to work. The people had work. The system worked. Hey, EVEN the Congress used to work (sometimes). God knows, it was far, far, far from perfect -but at least we all had some share in the struggles AND the rewards. But somewhere along the way, we lost our way. Because now we have an economy and a political system that seems to work only for the rich. What they call “trickle down economics”….leaves most of us out in the cold cold rain. We need to get back to what America was, and what it should be, and what it can be. Occupy Wall Street is no longer just a place called Zuccotti Park – Zuccotti Park is everywhere. You can beat us and arrest us and tear-gas us, you can try to “permit” us to death….but you can’t kill an idea. You can’t keep down a people’s hopes and dreams for a better life…..a life with dignity and freedom….for us, and for our kids. More power to Occupy Wall Street, as it spreads to every town and city – because OWS is us, and for us, and by us. It comes up from the grassroots, and it lifts us up in turn. With OWS America has found it’s voice, and that voice demands fairness and justice -for ALL. This land IS our land! AND WE WANT IT BACK! We want our LIVES back! We want our FUTURE back! But it’s more than just words…. it’s more than just politics…. it’s your LIFE, and how you want to live it. So why not take some time, find a quiet place somewhere, and consider this: Each of us has only one brief life….one chance….one roll of the dice….and many choices. It’s time to choose….to risk…and to act. If not now…then when? If not you, then….who? You DO have the power my friend….and the choice is yours. Don’t let your dreams die.

  2. working man on said:

    get a job loser you are protesting at the wrong spot try the house and senate dumb ass they are the ones who kill jobs with regulations maybe the blue gum in the white house could help you with your giveme love in try helping yourself for once we owe you nothing grow a set and take care of yourself

    • News Nag on said:

      Working Man’s resentment and ignorant presumptions make him the loser. Wouldn’t want to be him.

  3. working man, you call yourself “working man” and call people supporting occupy wall street “loser”. I am for one among many who hold jobs and strongly support occupy wall street.

    I am an independent, a professional, one of the middle class, and have been paying taxes dutifully in past 25 years.

    I am a single mother with two daughters, one in college, and the other working in a financial institute at Wall Street. My older daughter worked extremely hard to make her way to Wall Street for her interest in finance and business. She landed her first job at Wall Street after the financial meltdown of 2008 and was certainly not part of the corruption. The movement is not against people like my daughter employed by a Wall Street company, but the masterminds behind the financial meltdown and their manipulations of politics that have put millions of Americans in misery.

    I am 100% in support of OWS – for the people, for the future, and for our next generation. The inequality between rich and poor has been drastically widen in past decades, more and more people can no longer meet their basic needs, but the politics continues controlled by the money and the greed of the Wall Street masterminds. The continual deteriorated politic and economic climates will inevitably lead to instability of the society and it will only damage our country and people, and I don’t see a future for both of my daughters and our next generations. With hopeless disappointment on the politicians, especially the Congress, The OWS grass-root movement is the only hope by the people and for the people.

    I am not able to participate in the movement in person because of my demanding job, but I have been contributing to it through online donations, and will continue my support until there is a change on Wall Street and the politics!

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  5. Big Daddy on said:

    When are these goups going to start marching to Washington D.C.?