Occupy Wall Street is a new social movement that seeks to challenge the highly imbalanced distribution of wealth in the United States. Beyond this basic message it is unclear what the movement -- which has spread across the country -- wants to accomplish. Nevertheless, the movement has generated a lot of energy among progressives and captured media attention.
Not all of the attention, however, has been positive. Instead, the media has reported conflicts between various "Occupy" protesters and police. One of the most dramatic media reports involves a campus police officer at the University of California at Davis employing pepper spray against peaceful student protesters. Municipal officials in various other locations have also sought to eject the protesters from the public spaces.
New Strategies Required
Although it seems abundantly clear that some of the police measures have violated either federal or state rights of the protesters, members of the Occupy movement will probably need to rethink its strategy in order to remain relevant. To date, the group's most visible strategy has involved the physical occupation of certain geographic spaces. Indeed, the name of the movement reflects this primary mobilization strategy.
Maintaining the occupying strategy as the single or even most prevalent tactic, however, could doom the movement. Although the protesters certainly have the right to assemble and engage in speech activities, it is unlikely they have the right to occupy public spaces indefinitely. Indeed, the Constitution allows government officials to use reasonable "time, manner and place" restrictions on public expression - so long as the restraints are unrelated to the content of the speech. Accordingly, the movement's primary strategy -- physical occupation -- is on a collision course with the government's ability to place certain restraints on protest activities. If the movement cannot engage in its primary protest strategy, then it is effectively silenced.
To avoid this inevitable defeat, the Occupy movement should move beyond this limited approach and engage in broader strategies. This could include having speeches and rallies (not simply occupying space), articulating concrete agendas, lobbying lawmakers, adopting media campaigns, and other strategies commonly used by successful social movements. Broadening the group's activities could also generate interest among individuals who do not have the luxury of spending time away from work and other responsibilities in order to occupy various locations of power. Until the movement adopts additional social movement strategies, it will likely dissipate without influencing public policy or politics.