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Occupy Wall Street: The Roots of a Social Movement

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There is a seemingly constant mantra from the corporate media propaganda machine, and now from some avowed "progressives" (such as Maddow, Harris-Perry, and Rhodes), that the Occupy Movement needs to focus its demands; make clear political policy statements; and form a "recognizable" organizational structure. Rachel Maddow had a conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry on November 17th regarding the Occupy Movement. It is summarized thusly on Maddow's site:

"Melissa Harris-Perry, professor at Tulane University, talks with Rachel Maddow about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can convert its energy, passion and broad support into political power and action. "

I find even making these suggestions of "transitioning" to "political power and action" troublesome at best, and an undermining of the movement at worst.

This is a coalescing social movement. It has its roots in the protests in Seattle during the WTO in 1999. What we saw then was a number of different groups with different base concerns (globalization, labor, environment, etc) coming together to engage in a visible coalition statement against globalization which impacts all of these concerns.

However, what we see with the Occupy Movement is not a redux of Seattle in 1999. All of those players and more are certainly present across the country. However, they are largely present in a more holistic way. The exception to this seems to be the unions which vaguely stand apart, but increasingly they are merging as various actions around the country move forward.

The Occupy Movement appears to be an evolution from 1999 that reflects a growing awareness of the interlocking nature of various issues, and how they are linked to the concentration of wealth and power. In Seattle we saw distinct groups coming together for joint action. In Occupy we have the issues present and the different groups largely vary in strategy - not by organizational affiliation. Further, there is a dramatic change in organizational structure. The Occupy Movement has decided to utilize a decentralized consensus model.

The Occupy citizenry have made clear that they are operating in a flat, decentralized organizational structure. There are no "leaders," and the movement eschews hierarchy. They meet in General Assemblies and break up into smaller groups for discussion of complex decisions. The decisions are made via a form of consensus. The calls from outside to the movement for an organizational structure are a blind slap in the face as there already is a structure. Once again the 1% (and their lap dog media spokespeople) are trying to force their model upon others. Essentially saying "take me to your leader" for a group that deliberately has none. Concluding that the Occupiers are disorganized because they don't follow the dominant model is propaganda. Further, is the apparent belief that in order to "move forward" the Occupy Movement must change to a hierarchical organization with leaders and become a political movement (at best) lacks imagination.
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The organizational model that has been chosen is the carrier wave of the movement - "we are doing this differently." This choice is linked to one clearly identified problem - "the system" (our social system) is broken. Choosing to organize and function using a different model is a direct challenge to cultural practices - not just political issues. It is one of the many things that identify the Occupy Movement as a social rather than just a political movement. It is a clear statement that we must think and act differently to achieve different results.

Calls for the Occupy Movement to transition to a political movement are calls for the movement to fit a failed model. It is an attempt to bring the movement under a political party tent when the clear statement is that that system (political) is also broken. Certainly there are policies and legislative changes that can help address some of the issues raised by the movement. However, there are things that go beyond the political - such as communality, low consumption, direct democracy, non-violence, that are clearly social. Further, in the classification of social movements, the Occupy movement falls into "revolutionary." Essentially:

" Revolutionary movements are not interested in working within the system. For members of such movements, the system itself is the problem and it cannot be fixed; therefore, the only solution is to get rid of the system and replace it with a system that members think is better ." ~

There have also been those who have proposed that the Occupy Movement is (or is trying to be) the flip side of the Tea Party. The two are not comparable in a variety of ways that have been detailed by others. However, the Tea Party is clearly a political movement, and is totally integrated into the Republican Party (regardless of claims of "independence.") If we look at the Tea Partiers socially rather than politically (though this distinction has become moot in the Republican Party with virtually all of the Republican Presidential candidates pledging their "born again" vitas at the Family Leader Forum) we would identify it as a "reformative" movement (click here:). Such a movement advocates returning to a former time (a pressure in the Republican Party since Reagan), and operating within the existing institutions. In fact the Tea Partiers are largely an extension of a long term extreme conservative takeover of the Party. This connection to the accepted reins of power is clear as Tea Partiers can show up for a demonstration carrying automatic weapons (including when the President is present) and not be met by the police. Far different than the shoulder to shoulder police presence at Occupy events across the country.

Corporate media further the meme that the Occupiers need to take "action." I am not sure what counts as "action," but that has been characteristic of the movement across the country. We have seen the movement strategically physically claiming territory as a component of free speech and direct social action. What more action are folks looking for?
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While the movement is monikered the "Occupy Movement," or "Occupy Wall Street Movement," what is happening is a claiming of space - be that park, mall, building or street. This physical claiming of space for the people is a powerful statement. It proclaims each space as public - even when that occupation is a branch of Chase.
Yet a floating critique has surfaced that the focus of the movement is unclear. Really? Unclear? It seems perfectly clear to me that there are multiple clear foci. If one listens to 30 minutes of streaming video of almost any of the occupy groups one will likely hear the following issues:

    politicians should legislate to the good of the 99% - not the 1%;
    drastically narrow the wealth gap;
    prosecute the criminality of the investment banks;
    stop investment into private prisons;
    protect and serve the environment;
    universal college education;
    universal, single-payer health care;
    house the homeless;
    house the homeless vets;
    stop the wars.

In short, most of the focus is on social justice and equity. This is a movement towards fairness in a society and economic system which is beyond unfair.

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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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