April 18, 2012

Occupy Wall Street movement not dead to Knox

Although it no longer dominates the media, the Occupy Wall Street movement is anything but dead, according to some Knox students.

Beginning as a relatively small occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district on Sept. 17, 2011, the Occupy movement has since spread across the country and around the world, inciting thousands of people to occupy public spaces in order to protest against socioeconomic inequality, corporate greed and the influence of corporations over politics.

“I think it’s a really revolutionary and interesting idea: a truly populist sort of movement,” freshman Paige Lee said. “There’s no true leaders. They try and keep it amongst people, not really having a true hierarchy.”

This lack of organization may have contributed to the fizzling out of OWS, according to Associate Professor of Political Science Duane Oldfield, who studies social movements. Oldfield pointed to “prefigurative elements,” or the desire to create an alternative society within the movement itself.

“What you’re doing … is living out a vision of a new society with a more democratic coming-together … and there are tensions between the prefigurative element and the more practical organizational element,” he said. “How do we organize people to get things done?”

Oldfield also suggested that the most defining characteristic of the movement — occupying a physical space — may have lost its luster.

“It’s one thing to take over a space … but after a month, it’s just not that exciting,” Oldfield said. “They haven’t found something to replace that central element.”

For sophomore Eli Mulhausen to participate in an Occupy Chicago event in October, it was the issues that got him interested, but the energy at the protest that left a mark on him.

“I definitely felt that people had this feeling of empowerment … that they were doing something that was important,” Mulhausen said.

Empowerment, however, does not always translate into change. While the notion of the 1 percent is now commonplace, the movement’s impact on policy is much less clear.

“I think [Occupy Wall Street] has had a large cultural impact, but as it is right now, I feel like it’s a really symbolic kind of movement,” freshman Bruce Kovanen said. “I feel like in the future, it will become more important.”

Part of the reason for the lack of influence on policy, according to Oldfield, may be the movement’s decision to not affiliate with a political party. Rather than unifying the movement, this may have highlighted a fundamental division among supporters: which venues to use to bring about change.

“I think they’re divided between two groups, one of which … doesn’t want to undermine the Democrats, and then the more radical elements of the movement, I think, are kind of contemptuous of the entire electoral system,” Oldfield said.

For Lee, Occupy Wall Street has thus far been more about generating support and activism than implementing systemic societal changes.

“[The Occupy movement] has been reminding people that they can use their ability to protest,” she said. “Even though it hasn’t had a huge effect yet, I think it has the possibility to do so through encouraging people to think about things.”

The next challenge for the Occupy movement and those who support its ideals, then, is translating ideas into actions directed at a concrete target, which has not yet been clearly defined, Oldfield said.

“Movements … need good enemies,” he said. “Wall Street worked very well for them, but they’ve kind of had a hard time finding a way to embody that.”

In an effort to do just that, the movement has spawned many smaller protests, such as demonstrations against high tuition on college campuses and the occupation of homes at risk of foreclosure. These sort of focused activities will serve the movement’s larger goals well, Oldfield believes.

“The movement part raises issues, energizes people,” he said. “Taking up and addressing issues may be how to actually get things done.”

Anna Meier

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