Justin Elliot talks to Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown and author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” about where Occupy Wall Street is heading.
We’re now a month-plus into this. Does Occupy Wall Street remind you of any past movements or does it seem like a fundamentally new type of thing?
This is the first time in a long time, perhaps since the 1930s, that the left — and I think this protest does belong to the left, though a lot of people who are involved in it wouldn’t call themselves that — has focused on economic injustice as a central issue. That is both new and of course harks back to the beginnings of the New Deal. At that time, most activists on the left were primarily targeting economic inequality — in the form of wages, the lack of democracy at work, and resistance by industrial corporations to recognizing unions. What’s obviously different now is that Occupy Wall Street has been put together by people who are proud of being children of the Internet age: with horizontal organization, leaderlessness and consensus decision-making. The main tactic is about hanging out with and learning from one another. There is no sense of how the tactic will lead to either taking political power or having a big share of political power. This movement seems to think from tactic to tactic, rather than tactic to strategy.
Is there precedent for this kind of form and structure?
Many a protest campaign begins this way. The sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counters beginning in February 1960 had an end — desegregation of public facilities — but they weren’t quite sure of where it was going after that. They just thought, “This is a neat tactic that will draw attention.” And it did. That began with four students in Greensboro, N.C. But it soon blossomed, and now their lunch counter is in the Smithsonian. The movement against the Vietnam War also began with very small protests in 1964, and then grew into ones with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. So protests can grow and become catalysts for larger and more diverse movements.
The two examples you just mentioned had obvious, discrete goals they were trying to accomplish. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street has only a broad theme. Are there precedents for this?
There was Coxey’s Army in 1894, which was the first group to march on Washington. They were mostly unemployed people with a vague demand for public jobs. But they were basically just pissed off about the widespread depression of that era, and they were determined to compel Congress and the president to do something. Like Occupy, they did not have a well-worked-out agenda. Historians disagree about what effect the march had. But it certainly dramatized the situation of the poor and the unemployed, much as Occupy Wall Street is trying to do. People marched from around the country on Washington; they took freight trains, and hitchhiked on wagons, and walked a lot, too. It was very dramatic and the press covered it very widely. But the depression continued until 1897.
What can Occupy learn from history about how to sustain itself beyond the initial burst of interest and energy?
I think protests like this have to progress from tactic to strategy if they are going to endure. They have to either start their own organization — as the sit-in movement started SNCC — or link up with other organizations. The problem with that strategy is that what’s gotten people’s attention is the clever, somewhat novel tactic Occupy is using — and the participatory, very small-d democratic nature of it. The next step will inevitably not be that clever and novel. But for it to go anywhere, the Occupiers have to figure out, to some degree, what kind of demands they want to make. That doesn’t mean they need a 12-point program, but maybe a three-point program. They have to figure out what sort of relationship they want to have with existing groups on the left. But with no leaders and everything run by consensus, how do you make these decisions?
What’s more likely to happen — and I think to some extent already is happening — is that this will become a catalyst for other people to do other kinds of things about economic inequality. I think it’s likely that Occupy Wall Street will be seen as a spark. I think it’s unlikely that people are going to stay in the park for month upon month unless they are homeless. Most people eventually will want to get on with their lives. In the end, a tactic, no matter how successful, is just a tactic.
Micah Sifry writes: Overall interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be cresting at the moment, with affiliation through the nearly 500 Facebook pages that we’ve been tracking starting to top out and organic interest in the topic also showing signs of calming down on Google search. At the same time, the movement–which deliberately has avoided appointing leaders and spokespeople–continues to expand its networked base. Nearly 250 of those Facebook groups have at least 1,000 members. Another 70 “Occupy X” Twitter accounts also have at least 1000 followers. And in a fascinating development noticed by Shane Castlen, who is tracking all of these metrics on his CollectiveDisorder.com website, while the main Reddit community for OWS now has more than 10,000 members, a number of local Occupy groups are slowly building their own “subreddits” focused on the news and debates occurring around their own encampments. Boston, Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, DC, Orlando, Philadelphia, Seattle, Richmond, Omana, Columbus, South Dakota and Boise are all active there.