Top Five Challenges for the Occupy Movement in 2012

The Occupy movement is about to turn four months old, and already is planning a host of events for 2012. (See Occupy Together and InterOccupy for news on the larger movement, and Occupy Wall Street for NYC-related developments.) Occupy Together lists 1508 Occupy sites globally. Some of those are physical occupations with tents and the like, while many have been evicted and exist for the moment as meetups and planning groups that focus on events and periodic gatherings. Occupy Wall Street's Facebook page has over 360,000 followers and continues to grow daily. Just this week, Occupy Nigeria (new Facebook here) has been in the news. 

In the United States, the movement is entering its second phase in most places, beyond the intense initial fervor and international publicity about campsites, and under the challenges of winter weather in some parts of the country. There is hope among many activists for a robust springtime of events, which will roll into a heady summer and crescendo in 2012 with the fall elections. 


As readers may know, I have been involved with Occupy Wall Street from early on, and with Occupy Faith NYC (Facebook here, website here), an interdenominational/interfaith/interreligious group that supports Occupy. A meeting of some Occupy faith/religious/spiritual leaders from around the USA took place in NYC recently, and there may be another coming up in March on the West Coast. In short, though Occupy may have faded from front page news coverage, the movement continues, though it clearly faces challenges.

Here are the top five challenges I see for Occupy in 2012, in no particular order: 

[1] Make Occupy as interreligious and as intersecular as possible. We need to work to get all religious/spiritual/faith communities who would be sympathetic to Occupy and its nonviolent message and tactics, in a broad-based service of more equitable sharing of social resources, connected to the movement. It has to be made relatively easy for these communities to participate in Occupy and also to make the concept their own, to feel free to give it their own religious-, spiritual-, faith-inflected meaning. Occupy is a relatively open-source phenomenon. We also need to work to get all secular, agnostic, atheistic people who may be affiliated with their secular communities as their center of gravity, and who will naturally have many different understandings of what their secularity means -- all of these persons who would be sympathetic to Occupy and its nonviolent message and tactics, in a broad-based service of more equitable sharing of social resources, need to be welcomed. Just as much as religiously-identified people and communities need to be encouraged to make Occupy their own, so too those who come from secular organizations and communities or none at all. 

(There will of course be people who identify as religious/spiritual/secular and more, or who find themselves somewhere between these categories. These are not rigid categories, but only provisional forms for thinking about how to welcome and grow the movement and the concept.)

[2] Make Occupy as interracial and interethnic and inter-sex/gender as possible. It is often the case that startup political organizations in the USA are disproportionately influenced, especially early on, by those who are privileged enough to have inherited, and to feel, a stake and an agency in the political culture -- and in the USA, that would be those who are disproportionately visible as white, middle-class, male and heterosexual. Lots of Occupations have lots of guys who look like this (who, frankly, look like me), although different Occupations have had more or less success representing the diversities of the 99%. The more that Occupy looks like the 99%, and even makes a preferential option for those who are lowest in the 99%, the greater the chance it will tell the truth and the greater the likelihood of its larger credibility in our society. The dynamic of Occupy's success is bound up with the deeper story of privilege and gender, race, and class in this country.

[3] Continue to focus on and deepen local events at local Occupations, serving people in our particular regions who have varying kinds of need (material, psychological, spiritual, which though distinct are not separate) and working for change that is both highly specific to localities and also connected to larger social-political forces. Occupy has to be able to show again and again that we cannot only manage public spectacles that draw attention to the issues -- an important approach in a highly mediatized culture -- but that (in the words of Rev. Michael Ellick) "we clean toilets, too." We help secure housing, we care enough about the people around us to give them the care they really need.  

[4] Evolve a governance structure at the local, national, and international levels to become more effective. Many local Occupations are struggling with forms of governance that will be both democratic and effective. This is an old challenge. But I believe Occupy will also need to organize itself into a larger interlocking structure nationally and internationally in order to maintain longer-term social effectiveness. Some plans are afoot for attempting to build such structures this year, but there will be a lot of resistance and in such a leaderless, decentralized movement, it will be very hard. 

[5] Stay nonviolent and teach about nonviolence. With a very, very few exceptions, millions of participants in Occupy have practiced nonviolence at public events globally. This needs to continue because it is, in almost every imaginable situation, and as many religious leaders have taught us, the living path to greater moral clarity, but also because it is essential to the credibility of the movement. I and other parents have felt safe bringing our children to Occupy events. Except in rare cases of high tension or in situations of planned direct nonviolent action, that needs to continue to be the case. A no-drugs (except coffee! and of course there will always be some nicotine...), no-alcohol, child-friendly, and nonviolent environment. The palpably festive or joyful atmosphere around many Occupy events, even while people are bearing sober messages, or risking arrest, is good for the movement. Further, with regard to teaching nonviolence, I would also like to see more teach-ins and educational events and programming around Occupy. Not enough people know enough about the issues beyond the headlines or know enough about why they might want to get involved.

Tom Beaudoin

New York City

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Bill Mazzella
7 years ago
Your five challenges make sense. Clearly the force of this movement is the disruption of the middle class. The rich, up to this point, always knew how important the middle class was to their well-being and survival. It is a very arrogant right wing, with plenty of help by Catholic leaders and bishops, who have the hubris of a Louis XVI to ignore the needs of the people. Fortunately, the bishops, at least openly, are not contemptuous of the downtrodden. But their affiliation with those who do is troubling. Perhaps no one person symbolized this attitude more than Dick Cheney, who after having pushed the tax break for the rich had the gall to say: "We deserve it."

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and it will not necessitate confrontations. It will take creative people in economics and justice to set the ship right. Right now it is not that clear whether there is a the plan and/or the people on the horizon.
Gabriel Marcella
7 years ago
You need a sixth one. Some months ago Bill Clinton recommended that the movement develop a legislative agenda. For all of its noble goals, the movement may join the dustbin of history if doesn't put forward a coherent statement of policy initiatives that would improve the lot of Americans. The five proposals above are merely tactical in nature. Moreover, one of the messages that they need to put forward is that the widening gap between rich and poor leads to political polarization and has negative consequences for the long term health of our democracy. On this point read Francis Fukuyama's piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
Dear Gabriel: Thank you for this good recommendation. I agree that Occupy will need to move toward coherent policy stands. It has been (and for the time being remains) important to foreground the message that the people are the demands. But I and many others see that approach as eventually needing to be superseded by policy goals that are simple and clear. But I think that cannot happen until we have a clear and sufficiently widespread sense that the movement is reaching a crest. While Occupy is gaining steam (it is not yet even four months old), I think there is general tolerance for being officially "agenda-less" apart from specific direct actions and witnessing to the reality of class stratification and undemocratic economic and social-resource opportunity and distribution -- in the USA and globally. That tolerance for being officially "agenda-less" will not last forever. Once an agenda or policy proposal forms, certain constituencies will detach and the story will be about Occupy's internal deliberations as much as its external influences. It has been enough so far, and been a significant contribution, to put a range of such concerns on the table in a way that has involved a cross-section of people around the world. Going too quickly to an agenda would have short-circuited that. My recommendation about building local, national and international structures of loose but democratic governance for Occupy was, in my mind, a condition for the development of policy prescriptions locally, nationally, and globally. I continue to recommend that if people are in a mood to move to policy, they can get involved in their local Occupy and start to get some resolutions passed that will quickly get a hearing beyond the local level. That is the only way, as far as I can tell, that Occupy will move to policy prescriptions. I would also say that my recommendations are beyond tactics if tactics means procedures. Practicing and teaching nonviolence, for example, is about ongoing human (including potentially spiritual) formation, changing people's lives and our shared social life. Thank you for your helpful comment.
Jennifer Al-Abboud
7 years ago
Tom, Gabriel and Bill, You all make excellent points, but I have to echo Gabriel's point in particular.  The first step in healing dysfunction is acknowledgement of the problem, and the Occupy movement has certainly given the 99% awareness as well as validation and a voice. But to be taken seriously, participants need a focused and solution-oriented plan of action, because organizing and venting are not enough, no matter how dignified, non-violent or diverse the movement is.  I’ve given this a lot of thought lately, and I wonder if people realize the power they have to steer markets simply by knowing where their money is invested and reallocating their contributions to socially responsible funds.  Like many whose retirement savings is tied up in employer-sponsored 401K programs, my money is in a managed fund where I have always trusted the fund managers without question.  When I bothered to pay attention, I was appalled to discover that I’m supporting the top 1% with my monthly contributions; not surprisingly, they dominate managed fund portfolios. By closing my eyes, I have allowed myself to be part of the problem.  Perhaps if we all opened our eyes and exercised our collective strength, we could resist the corporate coup in its hostile takeover of our economy and its perversion of our core American values.  Imagine the possibilities if we put our money where our mouth is and started divesting from unethical corporations. We the people need to take back control by voting with our dollars (those we spend and those we invest) in order to hold Wall Street and our elected officials accountable and to clean house from the bottom up. Hopefully, this would pressure the powers that be to adopt a code of voluntary ethics in lieu of regulation.  Otherwise, we need to articulate a clear agenda and push for specific legislation, starting with election campaign reform.  Perhaps this has already been suggested but lost on me in the sea of internet clutter.  Nevertheless, I would like to know your thoughts.
Gabriel Marcella
7 years ago
Tom and Jenal:
Thank you for broadening and deepening the dialogue. Much of the discord that our society faces relates to economic forces unleashed by the current economic crisis, which originates from poor policy decisions by Congress and the executive in the last generation, and globalization. Some wise academic not long said that our problem has been too much of the notion that we could do everything at home and abroad without making sacrifices, thus putting the costs on future generations. Add to this the powerful impact of globalization (which is driven by technology),and you have the inability of many in our society to cope with change, with the loss of jobs, and the loss of dignity and self-esteem.

Also add the gridlock in Washington that has been with us for some time, the inability to make tough choices because of anticipated political costs. The can is kicked down the road and reckonings are postponed. In the meantime, the income gap between rich and poor increases and political polarization and the inability to find solutions increase.  Our democracy is the most evolved in the world, yet the genius of the founding fathers created a system of checks and balances where change and reform are often slow. Changing attitudes and values, as Tom advocates, should help. Eventually, however, one must engage in the political process to make change happen. Politics is the art of apportioning values.

Restoring healthy sustained economic growth has to be part of the answer. Schemes for income redistribution are not the answer, though a social safety net like unemployment insurance has to be there. Read the advice of the eminent political scientist Francis Fukuyama in the current (January/February 2012, pages 53-61) issue of Foreign Affairs. He argues that "stagnating wages and growing inequality will soon threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democracies and dethrone democractic ideology. What is needed is a new populist ideology that offers a realistic path to healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies" Fukuyama recommends pursuing policies that favor the middle class, not just aggregate expansion of the gross domestic product.


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