The Failures of #Occupy

Photo via Jennifer Cheung, YDN

Protest movement, or campground?


In Micah Sifry’s piece #OccupyWallStreet: A Leaderfull Movement in a Leaderless Time he says“…the Occupy Wall Street movement, like the Tea Party before it was captured and turned into a marketing vehicle for the Republican right, represents the flowering of something very deep about our networked age. It is personal democracy in action, where everyone plays a role in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I certainly hope Sifry was wrong. If Occupy truly is, as Sifry purports, a “very deep” manifestation of our networked age, then I’m really not all that hopeful about the power of technology. Where is the massive push to elect like-minded individuals to Congress? Where are the voter registration and education canvasses, alerting people about the mission of the Occupy movement and what they can do to battle the 1%?

Malcolm Gladwell, with almost eery precision, predicted Occupy’s pointless protests nearly a year before they occurred. The revolution will not be tweeted, he professed, nor will it be liked, +1′d, or tumbld. Rather, revolutions require the type of “strong-tie” connections like those that led to the lunch counter sit-ins in the south, not the weak ties that make up so-called “revolutions” today. Over 350,000 people like Occupy Wall Street on Facebook — what percentage of those do you think have ever donated money or attended an event?

The Occupy New Haven members I’ve spoken with have argued that their presence on the Green is itself a protest. But if it could be considered a protest, it’s certainly a far cry from most of the protests of old. Without a center leader, figurehead, organizing body, Occupy has found it impossible to settle on any agenda or tactic besides “Camp until change comes.”

As Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) told me last week, Occupy Wall Street lost any power it had once it decided not to make itself political. At the very least, he argued, occupiers should have been registering people to vote at all of their events.

But when you’re organized in a truly networked fashion, like Occupy is, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything. All of the best “networked” revolutions eventually elevate a few among themselves to leaders: protests against SOPA and PIPA would not have had the success they did without the support of Wikipedia and Google leaders, and even the Tea Party centralized to a degree. Networks, it seems, have the power to connect us. But getting things done, in the end, requires good ‘ol people power.

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4 Responses to The Failures of #Occupy

  1. Dilan says:

    Great post Nick.

    At the beginning of the Occupy movement, there was so much potential for change. It spread so rapidly all over the country and eventually the world (there is an Occupy Nigeria movement now). It truly did become a giant network. However, without harnessing all of this momentum, the Occupy movement has become one of those “Oh, is that still going on?” thoughts. I certainly agree with your thoughts on the Sifry reading—without having a leader/some sort of hierarchal structure in a network, there will eventually be disorganization. This is certainly not to suggest some strong-form, dictatorial leadership, but simply a headquarters or a point group. This way, when discussing the Occupy movement on the news, blogs, or social media, people are not just reading random Occupier interviews, but a specific individual/group that can speak credibly for everyone. This would most likely revive the Occupy movement, open up more opportunities for dialogue to happen, and probably help create the change Occupy was designed to create.

  2. Sam says:

    It’s almost frustrating that we have so much potential to create change and so many people now willing to put themselves out there because of the “groupon effect” yet nothing has come of this movement. We do need a leader to take hold of this movement but I think it is impossible now and I think it may be hard for many movements like this in the future. These social media movements may be inherently leaderless and therefore may continue to be demonstrations and nothing more. I hope I’m wrong.

  3. Olivia says:

    Nick, I agree with your post. In fact, just today I walked past the Green and remembered that Occupy New Haven still very much exists, despite the fact that no tangible change has been made, or even advocated for in recent weeks. I think that the issue with this networking age is that we seemingly view it as uncharted territory, with new technology at our fingertips, when what we should be doing is trying to figure out how we can use such technology to fit old frameworks. That is not to discount the benefits of innovation, but there is something to be said for the many successful protests of the past – we shouldn’t discredit what made them successful, and sacrifice those qualities for the sake of using the new technology afforded to us.

  4. Anna says:

    Very interesting post, Nick. I agree that Occupy New Haven has been a poorly conceived political strategy. I also agree that political change requires more than sitting at a computer and clicking a “like” button. But I don’t believe that the networked nature of protests necessarily precludes them from becoming effective. While camping on the New Haven Green is unproductive, what is it about a networked protest that would necessarily prevent it from taking a more productive direction, like pushing for voter registration?
    Also, isn’t the Arab Spring a good answer to Gladwell’s article? After all, every person tweeting was engaging in high-risk activism; they knew the government could be monitoring them, and, in some cases, people were dragged out of internet cafes and killed. Furthermore, protestors did not use Twitter as an end in and of itself, but rather as a means to protest more effectively: it helped spread information about the events that were unfolding, and it helped publicize the timing and locations of physical protests. Leaders like Wael Ghonim did emerge during the process. Of course, while there are many that argue that the Arab Spring would have happened without social media, most agree that mass networking and social media helped expedite it.

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