Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Needs To Expand Its Tactics

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.


Eddie Blue-Eyes said...

We say: "We want an end to the corporate bribery of our elected officials and the return of our democracy to the people," and entrenched power keeps asking, "But what do you stand for?" They're either cognitively challenged or incredibly dense.

In addition, sure, occupying public spaces (or private spaces donated because of corporate welfare) MAY be illegal, but shouldn't challenging the erosion of the commons be part of any movement?

What if these laws are fundamentally unconstitutional, or work toward eroding political dissent or free speech?

Just challenging those two "assumptions" -- the influence of money in politics and corporate rule, and challenging the right to assemble in public spaces -- has thrown the machinery into a full-tilt spin.

THAT should say something about our effectiveness, our message, and where we're headed. Hint: change isn't going to happen until the CONTEXT in which the political process takes place begins to change.

Justin said...

If it wasn't for the police brutality I think the Occupy movement would have fizzled out by now. I completely agree that the time has come to reach people who aren't as politically active as people like you and me.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I believe you're right. The movement might be one "missing person" story away from being a third page story.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Eddie: Sorry - for some reason the spam filter trapped your post.

Laws that prevent indefinite occupation of public spaces are not unconstitutional. I agree with you that OWS has probably accomplished a lot in terms of mobilizing individuals. But the broad changes that you (and I) desire do not magically happen. It takes centuries of activism, usually aimed at getting discrete changes, organized around a coherent them. If you are a part of OWS, I encourage you not to resist different tactics.

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