From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy (Everywhere) Together and now to Saturday’s Global Occupation protests, the protest moment has spread like wildfire.
For me, this brings to mind the way a four-student sit-in at the Woolworths’ lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina grew and spread rapidly until, in two short months, over sixty southern cities were experiencing student sit-ins in early 1960. The time was ripe. Young people had witnessed the early stirrings of the civil rights movement, and many had been trained in non-violent direct action. The movement took off, never to look back. It was a moment of democracy awakening. At the time, no one could have predicted the array of powerful social movements that would follow.
Eight years later, in 1968, massive protests erupted in the United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In his book, The Imagination of the New Left, Political sociologist George Katsiaficas wrote of the time that it revealed an “eros effect,” the “massive awakening of the instinctual need for justice and for freedom.” Or, as Mark Kurlansky put it in 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, it was a “spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world.”
Think of what has occurred so far in 2011: Arab Spring, as images in Tunisia and Egypt were catalysts to improbable but spreading protest against autocratic elites throughout the region. Arab Spring soon spread into the American Midwest, as popular resistance sprang up against the Republican party’s efforts to emasculate public employees’ collective bargaining rights while simultaneously cutting spending for crucial public goods like education. Europeans, too, rose up to challenge, resist and in some cases turn back a range of deep cutbacks in public services—in Britain, Italy, Spain, France, and Greece, among others. Chileans students have amassed huge and prolonged protests demanding increased public funding for education. And now, Occupy Wall Street and its spread across the globe.
What is perfectly clear here is that the institutions of the global economy, and the world they are producing, are catastrophically out of line with the needs, values, and aspirations of most of humanity, and the people are rising up to resist this world. Occupy Wall Street is the latest manifestation of this uprising, in this case addressing the way that Wall Street and its minions have been manipulating and ignoring the needs and values of the American people for far too long.
Notwithstanding media hype about something they like to call “the Sixties,” there are two important connections between today’s protests and those of the 60s era. One is simply that the forces being confronted by today’s protests are the same forces that sponsored a backlash against the uprisings of the 1960s. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate and rightist interests combined to (erroneously) blame the 60s upheavals on the idea that government should be used to produce public goods and meet the needs of the people. Meanwhile advertisers, television producers, film-makers, and commercial media used the same “Sixties” stereotypes—hippies, young rebels, militants—to divert public attention to the world of privatized leisure and consumption. Together these forces turned politics over to capital and produced the world we live in.
Second, like the spread of 2011 protests, the contagious spread of the 1960 student sit-ins and the global revolt of 1968 was aided by dramatic imagery conveyed through the mass media of the time. Whereas media images invited new protest participants by suggesting that “now is the time to act,” mass media reporting invariably interpreted the meaning of protests in ways that reinforced conventional beliefs about the institutions of American life. If the arguments and beliefs of the protesters didn’t fit within this framework, they were considered, in Daniel Hallin’s words, “unworthy of being heard.”
I have argued in What Really Happened to the 1960s that this media combination of unconventional drama & imagery and conventional interpretation had profound implications for the trajectory of the 60s era, among other things helping to isolate protest movements from the rest of society and producing the “Sixties” icons and stereotypes that have proven so useful to both backlash and commercial interests. What this past era reveals about the dynamic between of mass media and social protest would seem highly relevant to the current moment.
I suspect that participants in Occupy Wall Street would recognize this dynamic in the responses of mass media to their protests. One can trace a general trajectory of mass media accounts from one of initially ignoring the protests to reports that captured compelling images and police violence, to fairly widespread attention to the spreading protests accompanied by the insistence that they reduce their protest to a series of legislative “demands” if they want to be comprehensible to mainstream society. To do so, however, would strip the protest of its fundamental challenge to the way American political and economic institutions work.
And therein lies the dilemma that faced protest movements in the 1960s as well. The questions facing Occupy Wall Street are, first, how does this protest moment become a protest movement, and, second, how does that movement convey its meanings in ways that wider publics can comprehend and embrace so that it can win major concessions from the powerful, to say nothing of achieving transformative change?
First, I hope the occupation of Wall Street is able to persist even as broader movement organizing goes forward. The visual reminders of their critique of our Wall Street dominated politics is important, especially to the degree it can create images that convey this critique in compelling ways. The visual occupations can also help sustain the global connectedness of this movement.
Second, in the U. S., the spin-off “Occupy Together” actions bring this protest activity to American cities and towns where they can not only convey their visual messages, but can interact with a whole range of other citizens they encounter in schools, workplaces, religious institutions, union halls, and the like. This is crucial if we are to avoid the isolation politics of the past. People need to reach out to their neighbors, their co-workers and fellow students. Some may need to sharpen their own understanding of how and why we have lost our democracy.
Local communities are the appropriate setting for grass-roots organization building. Befitting the populist message of Occupy Wall Street and it’s 99%ers, local organizations might borrow from the Wisconsin protests and call themselves “We are Bethlehem,” or “We are Springfield”—in effect representing the voices of “the people” of their communities. Local entities might band together to form state organizations like “We are Wisconsin.” Organization, populist fund-raising, and networking among the vast array of sympathetic groups is imperative, even if these steps may not appeal to the more anarchically expressive elements among Occupy Wall Street.
The primary thrust of an evolving “We are America” coalition should be on unifying themes that reflect the way American politics and society are dominated by Wall Street, corporations, and the extremely wealthy. There is no end of objectives such a group could have: a far more equitable tax structure, a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not people, universal single-payer health care, devolution of banks that are “too big to fail” (and/or the creation of state banks), even something like Infrastructure Bonds modeled on WWII War Bonds. At the same time, however, organizing should also explore a variety of broad resistance tactics like a national tax strike, organized bank withdrawals, or Occupy Wall Street’s “bank transfer day” as a way of exerting and sustaining pressure on the system.
Through it all, we should never lose sight of the fact that it’s democracy that is the urgent wish underlying all these protests—the yearning for the voices of all the people to be heard. In real democracy, the people share their voices, converse with each other with mutual respect, ultimately shaping their collective destiny. At times, perhaps the present, they end up making history. That’s the invitation that lies before us.
Ted (Edward P.) Morgan is Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and author of the recent What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (University Press of Kansas).