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Political columnist: Occupy movement hits a wall as protest potency continues to run aground

There are two important dates on the political calendar next week.

On Monday, we will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Then, on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives will convene for the year.

The media and political observers will spend a great deal of time discussing King’s legacy, the lawmaking and political posturing going on in Congress and the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

One should note that little attention is being given to Occupy Congress — a new offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement — timed to coincide with the new session of Congress.

Tuesday also marks the four-month anniversary of the Occupy movement. Perhaps it’s time to ask the question: Is it working? In four months, has progress been made toward realizing the movement’s goals?

As much as I would like to be able to answer with an emphatic “yes,” reality is much less encouraging for Occupiers, who haven’t been able to maintain a consistent focus.

The idea for the Occupy protests came from a blog post on the Adbusters website, which describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.”

On July 13, 2011, Adbusters bloggers proposed an occupation of America’s financial center, slated to begin on Sept. 17. “[W]e want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months,” the post read.

So far, so good. “Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices,” according to the post.

And that “one simple demand” is the problem.

Adbusters based its proposal on the Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring in general. The organization proposed that OWS should demand “a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.”

Such a commission could have had a great and immediate impact on American politics or made proposals to lay a foundation for future reforms, like the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Instead, the idea was abandoned.

On Sept. 29, the 13th day of the Occupation, the General Assembly at Zuccotti Park issued a declaration listing 23 grievances against major corporations. Nowhere did this declaration call for a Presidential Commission, or for any action, except to suggest direct democratic participation and an admonition to “[e]xercise your right to peaceably assemble.”

We have seen peaceable assembly in the months since; we haven’t seen political action.

Compare this to the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. Protests began on Jan. 25 and on Feb. 11, President Hosni Mubarak resigned. The revolution continued, and democracy is still at risk. Nevertheless, in less than a month, the Tahrir protesters did something that the OWS protesters haven’t yet done: They gave their country an opportunity for real change. They achieved their first major goal and then moved on to continue fighting.

The Occupy movement has tried to keep organization loose — the various local Occupy protests are linked in name and in spirit but have no obligation to support a particular political agenda. This has led to political fragmentation, as each group of protesters agitates for their own particular reforms. Some of these reforms have stayed on the target of reducing corporate influence in American politics, while others branch out unnecessarily.

For example, among the 23 grievances listed by the General Assembly at Zuccotti Park, there were references to corporations blocking renewable energy, mistreating animals and perpetuating colonialism. A flyer for an Occupy UMaine rally in November stated, “The Greedy Government & Corporations should be feeding & clothing the hungry, homeless, & struggling hard working American families.”

While I applaud the various groups of Occupiers for trying to keep these issues in the spotlight as long as the Occupy movement has it, the lack of focus on one singular, powerful reform has allowed Occupy opponents to paint the movement as one of radicals and hippies, letting inattentive members of the public gloss over the fundamental idea of the protests: Corporate influence in government perpetuates unhealthy levels of inequality.

Every other complaint, every proposed reform, stems from this issue.

As we’ve seen in Egypt — where protests and grassroots political action continue almost a year after President Mubarak’s resignation — a political movement doesn’t have to stop when it achieves its first goal.

Social activism is a task that never ends. As it stands now, the Occupy movement is showing us that without focus, a social movement with its heart in the right place and international support can squander its political potential.

Mike Emery is a fourth year sociology student. His political columns will appear every Wednesday.