How Occupy can heed lessons of civil rights movement

OPINION - Your average sit-in activist was usually a well-dressed and polished church-goer or college student who was able to elicit the moral responsibility of the viewer...

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have noticed that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is overtaking this country — and the world.

For the last two months, irate Americans have been occupying public spaces in order to bring attention to the corporate greed, unemployment, income disparities and social and economic inequalities of this nation. And while the movement has ramped up its membership at a heady rate, with hip-hop mogul Jay-Z even selling “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts, demonstrating hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park.

While America hasn’t seen this level of activism — barring the Tea Party movement — in decades, it remains to be seen whether or not the movement could use some of the hard-won lessons of the civil rights movement in order to propel the organization to a new and even more effective level.

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According to, ”[OWS] is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” And with the recent unemployment figures, OWS has found an audience.

While unemployment fell from 9.1 percent in September to 9 percent in October, many Americans have found little-to-no relief with the labor market gaining only a quarter of the 8.8 million jobs lost in the past two years.

To paint a clearer picture, of the 13.9 million Americans who have been out of work, 42 percent of them have been unemployed for at least 27 weeks or more. And while the employed middle class and poor have experienced marked declines in their income, according to the Huffington Post, more than 62 percent of Wall Street professionals anticipate an end-of-the-year bonus that is the same or more than last year’s bonus.

This schism between the haves and the have nots — or those of Wall St. and Main St. — has caused the movement to spread like wildfire. Holding up signs that read, “Whose street? Our street,” “Get on your feet, occupy the street,” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” many Americans have been making headlines with their occupation of city parks and plazas across the country and world.

Two months ago, on September 17th, the Occupy Wall Street movement, assembled about 1,000 people in lower Manhattan’s Liberty Square to call attention to the government’s bailout of U.S. banks, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor and the 99 percent of Americans who are being left behind by the system.

And by October, the occupation had spread to hundreds of cities and several countries, including Boston; Alaska; Chicago; Ontario, Canada; New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City, L.A., Puerto Rico; Minneapolis, Miami, Atlanta and Honolulu, Hawaii, with the NAACP also publicly pledging support to their cause.

A Body Without a Head

But while many identify and agree with the OWS’ grievances, it seems that the movement is needlessly struggling with key cornerstones of movement-building that could be easily taken from the civil rights movement’s playbook. A key component of the civil rights movement was that it had clear leadership.

Whether it was with Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acting as the faces of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott or Malcolm X articulating the teachings and beliefs of Elijah Muhammad, the civil rights era had notable leaders who expressed the goals and needs of its people in a unified fashion. So far, the OWS movement has refused to clearly pinpoint a particular spokesperson who can centralize their message.

Thirty-something ex-Wall St. analyst and current OWS member Karanja Gaçuça defends this decision by saying, “The fact that there are no leaders in our horizontal system is not the same as not having leadership.”

Still, Dr. Matthew Hughey, an assistant professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University, says, “Movements need symbols. And leaders often qualify as potent symbols and charismatic figures necessary to coalesce people into action. I think it is accurate to say that many within the ranks of OWS see ‘leader’ as a dirty word given its traditionally hierarchical character and vertical integration scheme. I would hope OWS understands that leaders who act upon the wishes of the people are neither inherently evil nor hegemonic. Leaders that help movements to pragmatically organize and move quickly when necessary are a boon, not a bane.”

Image Is Everything

The civil rights movement was also able to make a powerful impact by controlling their image. With civil rights leader Andrew Young often strategizing behind the scenes, the civil rights movement was very careful about what got coverage during demonstrations and who became the various faces of the movement.

Closer to the point, your average sit-in activist was usually a well-dressed and polished church-goer or college student who was able to elicit the moral responsibility of the viewer. For the OWS, though, keeping their media coverage focused on their key issues has been a difficult act to balance.

The OWS, for example, has been inundated with reports of lawlessness and violence among its ranks. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, someone was murdered on November 10th in Oakland, two protesters suffered drug overdoses in Portland and a person was found dead last Friday at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City.

In response, mayors across the country have ordered police to shut down camps. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered a Tuesday morning raid of Zuccotti Park to remove OWS participants and arrested more than 200 protesters, including reporters.

“The final decision to act was mine, and mine alone,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “We could not wait for someone in the park to get killed or injure another person before acting.”

And in Philadelphia, after a woman was reportedly raped on November 12th, Mayor Michael Nutter, who has also publicly supported the OWS, said the city “must re-evaluate” its relationship with Occupy Philly.

Gaçuça, however, denies these allegations, saying these reports of violence have been concocted to distract the public from the real issues that are plaguing this nation, “The stories about crimes and rape are lies. There were reports of attempted sexual assaults from the New York Post, [but] that’s not a credible news source. The stories are a distraction from talking about the real issues of income inequity.”

Either way, OWS probably needs to get in front of news stories such as these and provide their version of events while keeping the public focused on the issues.

Clarifying Demands

Another major component of the Civil Rights Movement was being able to work toward a particular set of goals. Dr. King and his peers were focused on using civil disobedience and nonviolent protest to stop racial discrimination and give blacks the right to vote.

While the OWS has underscored corporate greed, income disparities and bank bailouts as their signature platforms for change, it isn’t clear how the organization wants the wider society and legislators to actually address these issues.

Dr. Hughey explains: “The [OWS] certainly has one main issue: The top 1 percent control too many resources to the detriment of society. That is a simple and clear issue that is grounded in empirical and objective reality. What remains unclear, though, is how to address the reallocation of resources with a pragmatic and fair methodology. If we wish to talk about groups struggling, then let us center our gaze on U.S. Congress: that body of Washington occupiers is struggling a lot more than OWS on how to fix the ills of the U.S. economy and budget.”

Even with these ideological and strategic drawbacks, the “anti-capitalist protesters” show no signs of slowing down. Thursday morning marked the movement’s two-month occupation anniversary, with at least more than 1,000 activists, according to Bloomberg, being held back by police and barricades outside the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

And while hundreds of arrests were reportedly made, anniversary celebrations continued throughout the day with rallies at Brooklyn, Queens and Hunter Colleges, Union Square and a number of subway stations. By the evening, participants met at Foley Square and then marched onward across the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the coming days, weeks and months, we eagerly wait to see how the OWS will move this nation forward as it matures and becomes more sophisticated in its activism.