Many television news segments, newspaper articles and blog posts have, of late, asked what’s next for the Occupy movement. With spring in the air, apparently much of the Occupy movement’s strategizing has gone into claiming Labor Day as a way to express contemporary discontent and possibly mobilize new participants particularly in smaller cities. According to Alan Farnham of ABC News, “It’s shaping up to be a busy spring for Occupy.” Because of its cultural significance, or that it presents a perennial opportunity to raise awareness and promote Occupy goals, May Day might get a makeover in becoming the day for the 99%.
For those who study and teach about social movements and collective action, the last year has provided us with numerous cases. From OWS, environmental activism, the Arab Spring, and the Tea Party, we have compared and contrasted these cases, often seeking to find common themes across these, using existing theoretical frameworks to shed light on contemporary cases, or alternatively, use what’s going on out there as a way to reevaluate existing theories of social movements and collective action.
One important and emerging theme is the way in which people – from the public, to the media, to political elites – react to social movements. Scholars have shown how positive and negative reactions, especially by elites, have important consequences for subsequent mobilization. Of course, elite responses to protesters vary; by no means is government surveillance (as is the case with environmental groups in Canada) equivalent to the brutality faced by activists and bystanders in Syria. Yet, there is a common theme when it comes to elite framing of challenges as illegitimate and depicting challengers as radicals and terrorists. Continue reading
On her CNN Newsroom morning show (Feb 7), Kyra Phillips set up a segment about college courses on OWS saying that OWS “is not just in the streets but in the classrooms” and that “kids are writing papers about it.” She interviews Roosevelt University professor of political science, Jeff Edwards and a graduate student in his course, Ameshia Cross. Edwards, who is a social movement scholar, says it is worth having a course about the Occupy movement because it has changed the discourse of American politics and has “staying power.” It also appeals to students because it is “youth led.” Cross, his student, is reminded of a comment a professor once made when she was an undergraduate – that the new generation is not interested in social movements. The discussion then moved to a comparison of OWS with “classic” social movements. All agreed that the Occupy movement is comparable to the civil rights movement and women’s movement. As Cross says, the Occupy movement “lives up” to that kind of comparison. Phillips then asks Edwards whether a course on the OWS movement would be taught in 5 years. Edwards says yes. He suggests that effective movements last a long time, and presumably, the goals of the Occupy movement– no matter how loosely defined – will not be met any time soon and thus will have to play out over an extended period of time (see also The Occupy Movement Is Now Being Offered As A Political Science Course). Continue reading
Map of locations of sit-ins in southern US cities, from Kenneth Andrews and Michael Biggs' 2006 American Sociological Review article "The Dynamics of Protest Diffusion."
Recent efforts to add a geo-spatial dimension to studies of protest have given social movement scholars the chance to draw some really interesting conclusions. Dan Myers and Beth Caniglia found how close your protest needed to be to New York City to have a hope of appearing in the New York Times. Kenneth Andrews and Michael Biggs determined how sit-ins rapidly diffused from city to city in the south in 1960. And Robert Sampson, Doug McAdam, Heather MacIndoe, and Simon Weffer-Elizondo established what neighborhood characteristics really mattered in where collective action occurred over 30 years in Chicago. While these studies asked different questions and focused on different places, they had one major component in common: they hinged on the painstaking collection of data from a variety of sources to identify the location and characteristics of large numbers of protest events. Continue reading
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.” Continue reading
Reflecting upon the events of 2011, I am reminded of a thought exercise Bill Gamson presented to the participants of the Young Scholars in Social Movements conference in April 2011. There was one question that especially stood out (and this is from my handwritten notes so I apologize if I don’t have this exactly right): “There has been a dramatic increase in economic inequality in the US since the 1970s. Yet there is no popular surge of moral indignation at the unfairness of it all and no social movement to demand to stop and reverse the trend. People may be aware of this fact and angry about it, but their attention and anger doesn’t seem to get channeled into organized collective action.” Keep in mind that the conference took place before anyone heard of the Occupy movement; when to most, the word “occupy” still simply meant “to fill up space.”
It took three decades but inequality itself (as opposed to poverty, welfare and economic hardship) has become a salient political issue, thanks in large part to the Occupy movement (see The Economist, Oct. 26th). Continue reading
In an earlier post, Will Moore and Christian Davenport identify some of the factors that have contributed to the repression of the OWS protestors. They pinpoint how the repression of protestors in developed democracies is not uncommon and discuss how the movement might avoid future repression by broadening its connections to mainstream political discourses.
But research has shown that the effects of repression on social movements can be positive as well as negative. In many cases, from the Freedom Summer campaign to the Vietnam War protests, repression led to backlash of rage within a movement that inspired activists to renew their commitment and extend their challenges. And Occupy Wall Street contains a number of characteristics that may help the movement respond to repression with greater protests. We know first that the effects of repression on social movements depend on when repression is applied. Mobilization into social movements occurs through waves during which the initial actions grow, crest and eventually decline. Repression that occurs during the initial growth phase of a movement tends to justify the commitment of those already in the movement and push others towards participating, while repression occurring during the decline phase of a movement tends to hasten its demise. Evidence suggests that OWS was growing fast as repression began to be applied. Continue reading