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By Chris Francescani
June 7 More than eight months after Occupy Wall
Street burst onto the global stage, decrying income inequality
and coining the phrase "We are the 99 percent," the movement's
survival and continued relevance is far from assured.
Donations to the flagship New York chapter have slowed to a
trickle. Polls show that public support is rapidly waning. Media
attention has dropped precipitously.
Bursts of violence, threats of municipal chaos and two
alleged domestic terror plots have put Occupy on a recurring
collision course with law enforcement.
Even its social media popularity, a key indicator of the
strength of a youthful movement, has fizzled since its zenith
National electoral successes - the legacy of the Tea Party,
the other major American grassroots movement created in recent
years - are not even on the agenda of the famously
While the movement's signature triumph has been to draw
worldwide attention to income inequality in America and
elsewhere, some who are sympathetic say it has nevertheless
failed a crucial test of social movements: the ability to adapt
and grow through changing tactics.
"Most of the social scientists who are at all like me -
unsentimental leftists - ... think this movement is over," said
Harvard University professor Theda Skocpol, a liberal academic
who wrote a book on the Tea Party.
She and others wonder whether Occupy will ever really thrive
without solid footing in the mainstream of American political
Bill Dobbs of Occupy New York's press team takes a different
view. He compares the OWS struggle to that of America's civil
rights movement - long and uphill, with broad goals to radically
alter American society. The first step, he said, has been to
re-animate America's long-dormant spirit of social activism.
"We in America have allowed ourselves to be put into a
political coma," Dobbs told Reuters. "Occupy Wall Street has
shaken the country out of that coma."
But are sporadic protests enough to change the nation?
Skocpol identified what she said are several key differences
between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. She said Tea Party
activists are generally 45 and older, with many in their 60s;
they moved swiftly from organizing rallies to participating in
local and national electoral politics, and established local
chapters, each with its own leader.
By contrast, the Occupy movement is populated by mostly
younger activists who eschew traditional politics and have
resisted top-down organization. Instead, she said, they focused
on encampments, which left them vulnerable to dissolution after
they were evicted from their tent cities.
Headlines about a plot to blow up a bridge in Cleveland
during last month's May Day demonstrations and another to attack
President Barack Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters with
Molotov cocktails during the recent NATO summit drew crucial
media oxygen away from the peaceful activities of the movement's
"Eight months in, the Tea Party were beginning to impact
primary elections, and by the second year were having a
tremendous impact," Skocpol said. "They were, if not electing,
then at least changing the kind of candidates that were being
"But Occupy got bogged down in tent cities. In social
movement literature we'd argue that there was a failure to
engage in tactical innovation at a crucial time." Certainly the
movement shows few signs of creating a summer of discontent in
American cities this year.
Its next big gathering is scheduled for Philadelphia, the
week of July 4. Organizers say the group will camp out for four
days in the "streets and parks of Philadelphia ... as a
collective exercise of our free speech" and conduct workshops
Last month, following credible but unremarkable
attendance at national May Day rallies and NATO protests in
Chicago, about 200 Occupiers gathered in New York's Union Square
to plan a fall re-emergence: a "Yes We Camp" rally on Sept. 17
to underscore the right of activists to occupy public space,
like parks and sidewalks.
AN ALLIANCE FORGONE
Last October, lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park hummed with
energy, a loose collective of aggrieved Americans united by
shared outrage at a spectrum of economic injustices. The
spectacle of "horizontal democracy," drum circles, and a
revitalized American counterculture captured everyone's
More than 12,000 newspaper stories a month referenced the
movement, according to two university sociologists, Patrick
Rafail and Jackie Smith. The two most popular Twitter hash tags,
#occupy and #OWS, hit cyberspace at an average rate of 20 to 60
times a minute, according to SocialFlow, which analyzed OWS
Twitter trends for Reuters. The frenzy peaked after police
arrested hundreds of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct.
1. That night, more than 1,500 of just those two tags went
pinballing through the Twittersphere every minute.
A Time Magazine poll in October found 54 percent of those
polled had a favorable opinion of Occupy Wall Street, while 86
percent believed Wall Street itself and lobbyists had too much
influence in Washington. By Nov. 2, OWS New York raised more
than $500,000 in donations, and by year-end, nearly three
quarters of a million dollars.
Public support for OWS spiked briefly following a Nov. 15,
pre-dawn New York City Police Department raid that cleared
Zuccotti Park and three days later when images of University of
California campus police pepper-spraying seated protesters went
But the New York eviction robbed the landmark camp of a
central location, and most protesters simply returned to their
lives. The core of the movement disappeared from public
A seemingly natural alliance with the nation's politically
active labors unions has been hindered by Occupy's general lack
of interest in electoral politics, said Kate Bronfenbrenner,
author of several books on labor union organizing.
"A FLOATING ABSTRACTION"
Public support soured through the quiet winter months of
When protesters returned to Zuccotti Park on March 17 for
the movement's six-month anniversary and threatened to re-occupy
the park, police moved in swiftly, arresting dozens more.
In April, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 71
percent of respondents said they did not support OWS. News story
citations have dropped below 1,000 a month as of May, according
to Smith and Rafail.
Related Twitter traffic has slowed to about five tweets a
minute, according to SocialFlow. In significant numbers, #Occupy
and #ows are being co-opted by an Oregon wildlife campaign and
Connect the Left, a liberal umbrella group.
OWS New York's general fund is down to $31,000 and its bail
fund to about $50,000, said Christine Crowther of the OWS NY
Almost all of the 300 or more camps that sprung up around
the nation have been disbanded, according to Arun Gupta,
co-founder of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, the
movement's newspaper of occasional record.
"In many cities, most prominently New York, the general
assemblies have disintegrated, because the democratic practice
becomes a floating abstraction without the space to anchor it,"
he wrote recently on Aljazeera.com.
While the movement has splintered into small,
self-sustaining cells that focus on individual issues at the
local level and coordinate where necessary with the other
"working groups," a national structure is in place. Different
Occupy chapters connect through group conference calls and
constant online activity.
Washington political analysts say they have no serious
Occupy-backed or -inspired candidates on their radar for this
fall's elections, and many Occupy activists say traditional
politics are not a priority.
"As a community that works with consensus with a 90 percent
threshold, we'd never be able to build consensus around a single
candidate - ever," said Justin Stone, a New York activist who
still participates weekly in "sleepful protests" in New York -
essentially camping on the sidewalk.
OFF THE RADAR
Few can argue that Occupy hasn't had a lasting impression by
igniting a global debate about income inequality.
"If you look at their agenda as crystallizing this issue, I
think the movement was a great success," said Paul Taylor of the
Pew Research Center, which has tracked public opinions about the
A recently released analysis of 2,233 newspapers by two
Pennsylvania researchers found that newspaper articles
mentioning "income inequality" rose sharply after the launch of
Occupy, and that even by March 2012, articles alluding to
"economic inequality" remained twice as common as they were
prior to the movement's inception.
OWS's Dobbs argues that the movement's aims are far broader
than those of the Tea Party.
"The [Tea Party] goal of 'chop the government down' is
significantly different than economic justice - making sure that
there is hope and prospects and safety nets for everyone," Dobbs
"This is not a struggle that comes gift-wrapped ... The only
thing most people in this country think you can do is stay at
home, or go vote," he said. OWS "has brought people another way
to take action - get out on the street and protest."
"WE FELT LIKE OUTCASTS"
Out in the street is exactly where many of New York's
diehard Occupiers are these days.
Desiree DeLoach, 28, who moved from Florida to join Occupy,
said she was drawn by the promise of an education on economic
issues and community building.
"I know for a lot of Occupy people, a lot of our lives we've
felt like outcasts in some way," she said. "Here we have a
community where people actually care about us.
"The biggest thing now for us is to be out reaching to the
people. A lot of people in my generation are unaware. We're not
paying attention to the news," she said.
DeLoach, who also participates in the sleepful protests,
concedes that the Occupy life has its drawbacks.
"It's not an easy lifestyle. There are definitely times when
I've thought about reintroducing myself into society."
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Thomas Ferraro;
Editing by Martin Howell and Prudence Crowther)