In a surprise raid in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the New York City Police Department sent Occupy Wall Street protesters fleeing from Zuccotti Park amidst a chaotic downpour of tear gas, pepper spray and sound cannons. Beyond the legal questions raised by what appears to be excessive use of force, the raid represents a defining moment for Occupy Wall Street. Stripped of the physical space that has defined it since its inception two months ago, Occupy must now reinvent itself. To maximize its impact moving forward, the Occupy movement must re-shape itself in the image of successful political movements of the past. This means adopting the dual strategy of populist mobilization and electoral politics used by movements for workers’, women’s and African-American civil rights.
Let’s start with popular mobilization. American popular culture suffers from what we might call “He Did It” syndrome. Want to understand the New Deal? Roosevelt did it. The civil rights movement? Martin Luther King, Jr. did it. The end of slavery? Abraham Lincoln did it. While we all love national heroes, the hard fact is that the success or failure of progressive political movements are invariably linked to their ability to mobilize significant portions of the general public. The New Deal was fueled by the strikes, sit-ins and national marches for public relief of 1933-1937. Franklin Roosevelt believed he had to respond immediately to the aspirations of the suffering public, or risk the delegitimization of capitalist democracy itself. Likewise, the civil rights movement rested on decades-long efforts of mobilization that stretched from organization of black sharecroppers in the 1930s to the courageous acts of Freedom Riders in the 1960s.
Occupy Wall Street’s success in achieving the much needed reform it advocates — most importantly, instituting a system of public campaign financing to eliminate the corrosive influence of money in politics— will rest on its ability for similar mobilization. In its first weeks, the Occupy movement coordinated a number of large-scale demonstrations. On October 5, unions and students joined a demonstration of 15,000-strong. Ten days later, another 20,000 took to the streets of New York. These demonstrations are important because they allow supporters averse to camping out to participate in the movement. After all, there’s a reason I’m writing this from my dorm room as opposed to a tent in Zuccotti: plenty of people sympathetic to the movement prefer to express their support in ways that do not involve sleeping on pavement. By lowering the access barrier to participation, large-scale demonstrations increase the movement’s base of popular support.
Unfortunately, in the past month, Occupy has de-emphasized large-scale events. The logistical requirements of mass coordination seem to offend the movement’s distaste for hierarchy. This is the wrong strategy. General Assemblies are useful for sharing ideas, but ineffective for coordinating strategic action. With the forced clearing from Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement should seize the opportunity to return to less frequent, larger demonstrations that include a greater portion of the general public. These events should include continued marches on Washington and Wall Street.
While necessary, public mobilization alone is insufficient: Occupy Wall Street must combine public demonstration with electoral politics. It is understandable that participating in an electoral system so skewed toward the wealthy is anathema to Occupy participants. Nonetheless, the inescapable fact is that successful movements combine “outside” pressure tactics with an “inside” strategy. The New Deal again offers the model: organized labor supported Roosevelt’s election and played a prominent role in his Administration, but also never ceased to exert public pressure on the Administration. Similarly, the civil rights movement only actualized once grass-roots activists formed coalitions with politicians who shared their agenda. The Kennedy Administration, for example, was heavily involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, which, it believed — rightfully so — would create pressure for the then-pending Voting Rights Act.
Occupy Wall Street is right that the influence of money skews the electoral process toward the large corporations and wealthy individuals who fund political campaigns. But refusing to participate in the electoral process merely exacerbates the problem. Rather, Occupy Wall Street must join with other progressive forces — organized labor, environmentalists and students — to coordinate electoral campaigns with mass public actions. This is the only way to ensure that elected officials are more responsive to the needs of the general public.
Occupy Wall Street has captured the public imagination by calling government to task for the inexcusable gap in its responsiveness to the needs of the financial sector, as compared to its responsiveness to the needs of millions of Americans suffering from a recession they did not cause. Now, stripped of the symbol that has hitherto defined it, Occupy Wall Street must reinvent itself in the image of successful progressive movements of the past. The path forward — popular mobilization combined with electoral participation — will surely be arduous. Yet the concentration of political and economic power that defines our time will not be eviscerated by its own accord. If we believe in democracy, we must be willing to exert the energy required to restore balanced politics. Now, in the midst of recession, when the effects of these inequalities are most dramatized, is the time to begin.
Sam is a junior. He can be reached at email@example.com.