By Brigitte L. Nacos
Yesterday, as I walked towards the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and encountered the Occupy Wall Street protest directed against Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the recent eviction of OWS protesters from Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, I wondered whether I witnessed the beginning of the end of the two-month old initiative. The number of protesters was quite small. Their mood seemed more festive than combative. They actually seemed to blend naturally into the beautiful fall day in always action-laden Central Park. From news reports we know that the mood of far larger groups of demonstrators was very different in other parts of the country, most of all at the University of California, Davis, following the pepper spraying of peaceful protesters. But this may change as well.
The Occupiers themselves and reporters characterize OWS commonly as a “movement.” But unless the burst of contentious political actions grows into a persistent social movement, “99 percent” will be remembered more as a catchy slogan than a dramatic turning point in favor of a much needed public debate about social justice and sustained political action for closing the 1-99 percent gap.
In the newest edition of his book Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, Sidney G. Tarnow defines the characteristics of both contentious politics and social movements. According to him, “Contentious politics occurs when ordinary people—often in alliance with more influential citizens and with changed in public mood—join forces in confrontation with elites, authorities, and opponents.” As for social movements, he notes, “When backed by well-structured social networks and galvanized by culturally resonant, action-oriented symbols, contentious politics leads to sustained interaction with opponents—to social movements.”
We also know that major social movements in America’s history coincided with the emergence of new media—pamphlets during the revolutionary era; the penny press during the Jacksonian period in the 1830s; the yellow press and muckraking magazines in the Progressive era, and TV-networks at the time of the Civil Rights movement.
Now, social media allow social networking like never before. Charles Tilly and Lesley Wood caution, however, to “avoid technological determinism” since “the mere invention of new communications media did not single-handedly change the character of social movements.” Of course, they are right. People determine whether, how, and for what to use new media forms. As the Arab uprising cases demonstrated, transnational TV-reporting was equally or more important in engaging people than social networking.
New media offer new opportunities to those involved in contentious politics and social movements. Thus, social media was a major, if not the major reason for the rapid growth and persistence of the Tea Party movement that distributed propaganda material, recruited supporters, raised funds, organized collective actions, facilitated local person-to-person meetings via the Internet--and still does all of the above.
The American political process comes down to competition between various interests. Therefore, in order to push for meaningful policy changes, contentious political initiatives cannot rely solely on the public performance stage but must become organized for and involved in electoral politics and pressure on decision-makers in Washington and elsewhere.
That’s precisely what the Tea Party’s contentious politics was/is about: Frequent actions in public spaces and sustained pressure within the political process—the sources for its continuous influence on members of congress.
Now more than two months old, the Occupy Wall Street initiatives remain at the performance stage. The occupation of public spaces and targeted demonstrations are basically the means to attract the traditional news media, receive coverage and thereby the attention of the general public instead of singing to the choir in the social media. Although not happy about the news coverage in the traditional media, the OWS initiative achieved its important attention-getting objective.
Yet, the singular focus on performance in public places continues. There is actually a risk here: When these sorts of contentious actions interfere with ordinary citizens’ daily life, as they did last Thursday in New York, sympathizers of the articulated grievances can and do turn into critics and even opponents.
It seems that Occupy Wall Street is near or has reached a crossroads with one way leading to activism in the political process to influence the outcome of elections and actual policy output--and the other into memory lane.