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.