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September 2012, Week 3

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Mon, 17 Sep 2012 22:02:44 -0400
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Occupy's Protest Is Not Over. It Has Barely Begun 

by Frances Fox Piven

Monday, September 17, 2012 

by The Guardian 

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org Source URL:
http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/09/17-7

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/17/
occupy-protest-not-over


A good many observers wonder, is Occupy over? After
all, the encampments that announced the movement a year
ago have largely disappeared, and no obviously similar
protest demonstrations of young people have taken their
place, at least not in the United States.

Nevertheless, I think the ready conclusion that the
protests have fizzled is based on a misconception of
the nature of movements, a misconception influenced by
the metaphors we rely on. We think of these eruptions
as something like explosions, Fourth of July fireworks
perhaps that shoot into the sky, dazzle us for a
moment, and then quickly fade away. The metaphor leads
us to think of protest movements as bursts of energy
and anger that rise in a great arc and then, exhausted,
disappear.

In fact, no major American movement of the past fits
that description. The great protest movements of
history lasted not for a moment but for decades. And
they did not expand in the shape of a simple rising arc
of popular defiance. Rather, they began in a particular
place, sputtered and subsided, only to re-emerge
elsewhere in perhaps a different form, influenced by
local particularities of circumstance and culture.

Movements that may appear to us in retrospect as a
unified set of events are, in fact, irregular and
scattered. Only afterwards do we see the underlying
common institutional causes and movement passions that
mark these events so we can name them, as the
abolitionist movement, for example, or the labor
movement or the civil rights movement. I think Occupy
is likely to unfold in a similar way.

And it will not subside quickly. Like earlier great
movements that changed the course of American history,
Occupy is fueled by deep institutional lacunae and
inconsistencies. The mainly young people who are Occupy
represent a generation coming of age in societies
marked by an increasingly predatory and criminal
financial capitalism that has created mass indebtness
and economic insecurity. At the same time, the policies
that once softened the impact of economic change (which
some commentators once thought were necessary for the
"legitimation" of capitalism) are being rolled back.

Think of the bitter pill of the broken promises to
young people who were told that education was the route
to security and prosperity and who now graduate to
unemployment and huge debts. And this is occurring in
the context of amazing revelations of the corruption of
always-flawed American electoral procedures.

Then, there is the looming threat of ecological
disasters that threaten the future of the planet
itself. These conditions reflect deep institutional
problems: they are not likely to be solved or even much
softened very quickly, and so long as they persist,
they will fuel the protests that are an extension and
continuation of Occupy, whether we give them that name
or not.

A movement forceful enough to change the course of
history must accomplish two great tasks. One is
communicative. The movement must use its distinctive
repertoire of drama and disturbance, of crowds and
marches and banners and chants, to raise the issues
that are being papered over by normal politics, for the
obvious reason that normal politics is inevitably
dominated by money and propaganda.

On this, Occupy has already made substantial headway.
The slogans that assert we are the 99%, they are the
1%, named the historic increase in inequality in the
United States during the past few decades as the main
issue, and the movement dramaturgy of encampments and
masks and general assemblies and twinkling fingers
helped to give the message heft and appeal, even to the
media that had at first simply disparaged the movement.

To be sure, there were lots of complaints that Occupy
had failed to issue its own policy proposals - which I
think it was wise not to, since to do so would have
ensnared the activists in endless disputes about
particulars. But that is quibbling. It is far more
important that we can see the influence of the
movement's main issue - extreme inequality - on the
speeches at the Democratic convention, for example, or
on the ongoing strike of 29,000 school teachers in
Chicago who have been joined by students and parents in
their demands not only for salary increases, but for a
roster of improvements in the public schools. So far,
good.

However, movements that make an imprint do more than
communicate. They also threaten to exert a distinctive
kind of power that results from refusing co-operation
in the routines that institutionalized social life
requires. That is the power that workers wield when
they walk off the job, or that students muster when
they refuse to go to class, or that tenants have when
refuse to pay the rent, or that urban crowds exert when
they block streets and highways. In principle, it is
also the power that debtors might mobilize if they
threatened to default on their loans. This sort of
disruption - in essence, the strike writ large - is
harder to organize than a rally or a march because
people will fear reactions, which are likely to be
swift and harsh. So, the protesters have to figure out
how to defend themselves.

This is also the problem that other great protest
movements confronted: the abolitionists had to work out
how to sustain the "underground railway" in the face of
southern posses, and the sit-down strikers of the 1930s
had to figure out how to defend their factory
occupations in the face of company police and sometimes
state militia. I suspect that Occupy is struggling with
that problem now, as an expanded Occupy begins to try
to organize campaigns against mortgage foreclosures,
student and credit card debt, and even the public debt
saddling municipalities.

The stakes are large, for the 1%, and for the rest of
us. (c) 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited

Frances Fox Piven is professor of political science and
sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University
of New York, where she has taught since 1982. Her
latest book, just published, is Who's Afraid of Frances
Fox Piven? The Essential Writings of the Professor
Glenn Beck Loves to Hate (The New Press). She is the
author and co-author of numerous books, including The
War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush's Militarism
(2004) and Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People
Change America (2006), and has received career and
lifetime achievement awards from the American
Sociological Association and the American Political
Science Association. Frances has been featured on
Democracy Now!, and regular contributor to The Nation
more Frances Fox Piven

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