The Occupy movement rose over the desperate and disjointed American political landscape like a colossus in the late summer and early fall of 2011.
From Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan--the home base of Occupy Wall Street--the movement spread to thousands of cities in America, as well as to foreign countries such as Greece, Germany, and Brazil.
By September 2011, the movement seemed to be well on its way to making a permanent change in the American political narrative, with previously-unheard phrases like 'the 99 percent' becoming household terms and renewed scrutiny being placed on the extraordinary wealth of the top one percent. News coverage alone was sufficient to keep the movement at the forefront of Americans' political brains.
But in November, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the removal of the Zuccotti Park encampment and the dispersal of its protesters.
Many other cities--including Oakland, which became home to the largest Occupy movement in any one city besides Occupy Wall Street itself--followed suit, and disbanded the Occupy encampments in their cities. At this point, all but a few have been dismantled.
Most pollsters have simply stopped asking for respondents' opinions of the Occupy movement. Only the weekly NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has kept up with public opinion for the movement; it records a nearly 50% drop in approval, from 29% of Americans in early November last year to just barely 16% at the end of last month.
Even New Yorkers themselves, up until now some of the most fervent backers of the movement, have lost their previously avid interest.
The most recent NBC/WSJ poll recorded just 49% approval for Occupy among New Yorkers--the first time since the movement's inception that fewer than half the city's citizens have voiced support for the protests.
Why did a few weeks of lowered visibility cause this phenomenon of a movement to fade so quickly from the public mind?
Occupy's most glaring weakness has been a simple lack of coherence and clarity in their policy positions and demands.
Many--perhaps even most--protest groups on both the left and the right in recent years have suffered from this problem in one form or another.
But the truth is, very few Americans--whether or not they support the Occupy movement--have (or have ever had) any cohesive idea of what the Occupy movement wants in terms of social and/or political change. Which, one would think, would be the whole point of a protest movement.
A visit by this reporter in October 2011, at the peak of the movement's popularity and influence, to the Occupy encampment in one of the most liberal and pro-Occupy cities in America--Asheville, N.C.--shows that even the Occupiers themselves had little grasp of what the movement was supposed to mean, or supposed to be for.
The topics covered by the speakers lacked any mention of legislation or policy positions, or even the names of specific corporations, oil conglomerates, or banks or their specific crimes. Every successive speaker spoke in nothing but vague platitudes like "a grand congress of humanity," and "taking the power away from the banks and giving it back to the people." They did not include any details in their elaborations on these points, either.
"We're going to change this country," a college student said during this reporter's visit. "We're going to change it from the bottom up. We're going to give the power to the people. The government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. As of now, the government is of the corporations, by the banks, for the oilmen."
It went on and on like this for hours, one speaker after another, in a neverending drip of meaninglessness on the speakers' end and growing frustration on mine--the verbal equivalent of five pounds of Skittles and no meat and potatoes.
And the most damning aspect of the whole experience was the enthusiastic, nigh adoring, reception this stream of tripe received in terms of response from those gathered at the Occupy site.
In fact, the one man who proposed a specific bill that Congress could pass--something about campaign finance reform and reducing the influence of lobbyists on congressmen, hardly a controversial idea in a thoroughly progressive crowd--ended up inciting a rather few moments of discord among the Occupiers as they debated each other into rage and anger over the particulars and details of this hypothetical bill.
The sheer impatience they seemed to have with each other was startling; not to mention the certainty, visible in the eyes of each as they disagreed with even their fellow Occupiers, that they and they alone had the right idea.
The most unfortunate and frustrating part of this is that, had Occupy dared to form a leadership council of some sort and formulate a list of demands, it may well have been able to force Congress to pass President Obama's planned--and now stalled--income tax increases on the richest 1%.
It was the Occupy movement, after all, that popularized the 1% term, not to mention its slogan--"We are the 99%"--that became, and remains, a household phrase.
But Occupy repeatedly refused to appoint any sort of leadership, on either a city-by-city basis or a nationwide level. It was supposed to be a bottom-up movement. And while this is an honest and philosophically classic sentiment, it rarely works in the world of American politics in the 21st century. Power is at the top here.
And, in the end, Occupy refused to state any unanimous demands, even within the bottom-up paradigm they absolutely insisted on. And the strangest part is, very few--even rabid supporters of the Occupy movement--will dispute this.
In fact, many supporters of the movement in the press, and many of those who marched and camped for Occupy themselves, seem to be specifically in favor of the movement's lack of demands. For many, this seems to be a badge of honor.
In the unbelievable words of Natasha Lennard, a Salon.com reporter writing for the Occupy! Gazette on April 25: "[Occupy's] consistent refusal to pose demands or set out specific goals as a movement means there has never been a 'desired result' to achieve or fail in the first place... As such [...] [Occupy] technically avoids the logic of success and failure altogether." And this was printed in Occupy's own news release.
It only got more surreal when Allison Kilkenny, writing in that old standby of American liberalism The Nation, decided to quote Lennard's article at length and in fawning tones in her May 3 online article "Massive May Day Turnout Highlights Media's Disconnect from Reality." A blog post by a pro-Occupy outlet is one thing; The Nation is quite another.
Lennard is correct that if one does not try, one cannot fail. But if one is not to try, what is the point of protesting? If Occupy Wall Street never planned to change how Wall Street actually works and does its business, then why waste the time in the first place?
Much of it comes down to the simple difference between protest for the sake of self-expression and self-actualization, and protest for the sake of maximum communication and winning over those who may not think like you from the get-go.
"...[P]rotest is not an expressive activity," writes estranged former Republican David Frum in a brilliant piece--aptly titled as well--for the Daily Beast website on May 18 called "How to Lose Hearts and Minds".
"It is a communicative activity... The medium is the message, as the saying goes. People won't hear what you have to say if they don't like how you behave. Or don't understand it."
The tactics of the Occupy movement have hardly ever been violent and rarely openly belligerent, but nonetheless seemed only to firm up the will of the two groups who control all the moving and shaking in the current Republican-led, legislation-stalling and President Obama-hating Congress.
The first key group includes the heads of all the most important House and Senate committees—currently all Republicans. The second includes the lobbyists working on behalf of banks like Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America and oil cartels like ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell—who, in many cases, through campaign contributions, have scores of congressmen who literally owe their ascensions to office to them.
Without convincing and corralling the former and displacing the power of the latter, no amount of protests, arrests, pepper spraying, or activisim will ever change the predatory economic system that has been constructed in this country since 1981.
About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.
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