The Withering of the Occupy Movement

Photo by Frank Augstein (AP)

Artist Pit Bohne's "Silent Demonstration" speaks volumes about the current state of the movement.

I’m neither predicting an end to the Occupy Movement nor hoping for one, but I am bored with it.  The state of the movement was on display this week in Pasadena at the Rose Parade where protesters (estimates ranged from 400 to 5,000) marched with a banner reading “Occupy the Rose Parade” behind the last float in the parade as spectators were packing up to go home.  Yawn.

Occupiers went to great lengths to avoid disrupting the parade and, after extended negotiations with local police, agreed to march at the rear end of the parade.  Not surprisingly, weeks before the parade the police were confident:

“We’ve enjoyed 122 uninterrupted parades and the 123rd won’t be any different,” [Pasadena Police Lt.] Riddle said. “We have seen protests before, be it PETA, impeach George Bush or protests over Christopher Columbus. We have dealt with fears over Y2K and we are prepared for the Occupy movement.”

Most protest is like this.  Boring.  Predictable.  Polite.  It’s exactly the opposite of what the news media are drawn to.  News media have a clearly established bias for dramatic events (i.e., large, disruptive or violent, with injuries, conflict, celebrities) but most events are small, non-disruptive affairs that are easily ignored.  Even among those that do make the news we find a disproportionate number of conventional tactics like pickets, rallies, marches, or vigils (search Google News for “protest” and most of what you’ll find fits this description).  It’s boring because it lacks drama.

Boring protest is also less likely to be successful—it’s more easily co-opted or altogether ignored than disruptive, innovative, and even violent protest.  It’s true that disruptive and violent tactics invite repression, but repression can be a good thing!   It is dramatic, and as Davenport and Moore recently wrote, repression is more likely if protesters are perceived to be threatening.  Marches and pickets are generally not threatening, unless of course their numbers are very large or their participants very famous or radical.  The Occupy Movement’s success in attracting media attention is due in large part to its tactics.  An extended occupation in Lower Manhattan is disruptive!  But not for long.  Even disruptive protests become boring once authorities learn how to respond without attracting the fanfare associated with dramatic clashes (i.e., quickly, efficiently, peacefully, in the middle of the night).  McAdam (1983) demonstrates the value of ongoing tactical innovation for the Civil Rights Movement, a model that can be useful for aspiring Occupy activists.

The question for the Occupy Movement is what’s next?  Of course there’s no single variable that guarantees success, but when it comes to tactics I see the movement moving in the wrong direction.  If the future holds mostly parades, banners, and silent demonstrations, then we should expect to see fewer posts about the movement on this blog and fewer reports in the media.  We’ll also see diminishing support from bystanders, authorities, and activists.  If it’s confrontations with local and federal authorities, innovative and disruptive tactics, and unyielding clashes with the 1%, then we may be pulled back in for another chapter in the unfolding drama.

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

One response to “The Withering of the Occupy Movement

  1. I love the last sentence in this article. If the tactics tone down, then so will the media attention. However, it’s clear that the previous tactics also lost their luster after awhile as well. Continued tactical innovation is a smart move, as well as a clarification of movement goals.

    Perhaps it is also time to rebrand the movement, as even the term “Occupy” seems to be losing its cache, as more orgs co-opt this term for their own gain:


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