by Rahael Gupta, ’12
Snow is falling in New York City. The NYPD forcefully cleared Zucotti Park last week. Protests sites all over the country have seen instances of violence and crime. The Occupy Movement is reaching a crossroads.
An impressive number of people have taken to the streets in the Movement’s name. Yet it remains to be seen how effective Occupy will actually be, with regard to driving the real structural change necessary to mitigate the recent surge in income inequality. Currently, protesters have organized themselves in a nonhierarchical fashion. They are diametrically opposed to involvement in electoral politics, and to traditional methods of effecting change.
This stance has served the movement well, because there is no figurehead for the police to negotiate with and for the media to berate with tough questions. Protesters rightly argue that their rejection of a vertical power structure and unspecific demands have allowed their following to become so large. It is appropriate at this time, however, to consider how the movement needs to further develop, such that it truly has teeth and is a real movement, as opposed to a string of heated protests.
It is appropriate, also, to consider how leaderless protests have fared in the past, and what can be learned from their respective failures and successes. Examination of the Civil Rights Movement is an obvious choice. The movement was particularly potent because it begot the passage of legislation like Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many may forget, however, that the movement began with a rather unspecific commitment to civil disobedience, which was necessary for it to amass widespread support. Even during the infamous March for Jobs and Freedom, at which MLK Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, at least six high-profile individuals were involved, of which MLK Jr. was only one. The movement had broad appeal, and quite a few compromises had to be made when it came to defining the primary ideology backing the movement.
It is prudent to consider that many leaderless protests have also quickly died out. Much can be learned from analyzing the failure and dissolution of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). If you’re eager for a more detailed account, I recommend hitting the history books, but the basic story is that the organization split into two factions, one that continued to pursue a commitment to nonviolence, and one that turned to Black Power ideology and violence. This schism meant the organization fast distanced itself from the mainstream Civil Rights movement and lost momentum.
The SNCC’s split resulted in a Black supremacist campaign with a very narrow belief system and set of directives. One can speculate that had the non-violent faction and the more zealous faction continued to collaborate, the movement might have succeeded. History tells us that the Occupy Movement needs to stay multi-headed to develop into the real, effective movement it has the potential to be. Dissension within the movement is a good thing, because it will prevent the formation of a prevailing and exclusionary ideology. Some protesters will inevitably try to effect change through legislation and judicial action and others will dogmatically stick to nonviolent protest. This kind of division is favorable, so long as one faction does not become over-zealous and violent, tainting the movement in the critical public eye.
The question then becomes, who is going to be the group to provide the push the movement needs to become flourishing and multi-faceted? Of late, the media’s eye has been on unions. Reporters have pointed fingers at the material aid and support that unions have begun to provide.
Unions and their 15 million members will certainly play a fundamental role, but I suggest that it will not be the only role. Let’s be honest, sad though it may be, unions are viewed by many as low-ideology institutions – special interest groups whose modus operandi is satisfying their constituencies’ demands.
The way I see it, undergraduate students are Occupy’s real ticket to fame and accomplishment. The potential to exploit their collective diversity in background and opinion, their eagerness to be involved in meaningful discourse outside of the classroom…these facts are perhaps currently less apparent here at Stanford, where a few impassioned individuals debate amidst a largely complacent population. It would be unwise to ignore the energy radiating from campuses all over the country, most notably at UC Berkeley, where the rally turnout just over two weeks ago pushed 6000, completely overwhelming Sproul Plaza. Undergrads should be endorsed for their unparalleled ability to ‘make a fuss’ about a range of issues, and for their capacity to give the movement an intellectual edge.
Skeptics everywhere are slandering Occupy for its putative lack of focus and unorganized, juvenile following. Perhaps such characterizations are marginally accurate, but I believe that these very characterizations lend themselves well to success and sustainability. The successful movement will be both diverse and multi-headed – a Rorschach inkblot of an uprising, onto which individuals can project their own ideals and aspirations. Too much ideological specificity at this early moment will not foster the growth that Occupy needs to move forward.
I also believe that as an undergrad at a major university replete with resources, I am in a unique position to learn about a wide variety of issues relevant to social justice and inequity and to discuss these issues with my professors and classmates. At a minimum, I am exceptionally well poised to leave Stanford more thoughtful and socially aware individual than I came. These are extraordinary times, and my intuition tells me that our country is witnessing the beginning of something very consequential. I recognize that I may be wrong, but I would rather bet on creating a better future for everyone. At a moment when upsetting trends in inequality actually seems conceivable, I prefer to proudly hold onto my American idealism.
I’m not yet sure what my personal role in the Movement will be, but I do know that I will be attending many of the teach-ins held this week in support of Occupy the Future. I will be reading the short essays penned by my fellow students and by professors like David Grusky, Donald Barr, and Doug McAdam – to be published this week in both the Stanford Daily and the Boston Review.
I encourage you to forsake apathy and do the same.
Rahael is a senior majoring in Human Biology.