It’s time to put Occupy in a little boat and shove it out to sea, toward the sunset.
In a matter of just a few months, the Occupy movement did what it set out to do, and it did it more effectively than anyone could have expected. “Occupy” is likely to be selected by the American Dialect Society next week as the word of 2011. “The protester” was named by Time magazine as the Person of the Year, the American Occupiers sharing that honor with demonstrators across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. The word “occupy” was embossed on the American psyche; it will forever represent the frustration over the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the destruction of the middle class and the rapidly fading American dream. To put it mildly, the movement got the attention of the most powerful decision makers in the world.
Yet, in our view, the word itself—“occupy”—is what’s limited the power of the movement. In order to embody the word’s definition, protestors had to occupy chunks of real estate 24 hours a day. In cities across the country, that eventually prompted aggravated city halls and police departments to clear public squares and parks of demonstrator encampments, creating a heated conversation about the right to free speech and the use of excessive police force that seemed to overshadow the messages of income inequality and disproportionate influence over public policy.
We understand that purposefully killing Occupy wouldn’t be consistent with the movement’s ethos. That would require an overt act of leadership, and there’s no place for leaders in Occupy’s horizontal structure. A natural death, or, better, an organic evolution into something different, would be more appropriate.
While we think “occupy” has run its course, the phrase “the 99 percent” still has immense value. The richest 1 percent own 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and through the access they buy with campaign contributions, they hold much of the power. But the power of the remaining 99 percent is, obviously, in numbers. The activists must harness that power by using language that resonates with the tens of millions of people who are sitting on the sidelines yet are also victims of an unjust economy. Most people understand how large banks have contributed to economic injustice—that’s why Bank Transfer Day in November, when folks were encouraged to close their accounts in large banks and open accounts in community banks—was such a great idea. We want to see more of that in 2012.
But, in addition to such targeted assaults on power from the outside, we want activists to begin to infiltrate the inside of the system. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of money and institutional backing to get elected to office, even at the relatively low level of school board. That’s why young folks have to join community planning groups—the trenches where bloody battles with moneyed land developers are waged—and relatively obscure city and county commissions in order to get a foot in the door. It takes years, but one thing often leads to another, and then another. Check the websites of the county government and its cities for boards and commissions that are looking for members. Volunteering for the campaign of a candidate who doesn’t make the skin crawl, or for or against a ballot measure, is another good way to start.
The thing is, changing the system takes effort and time. Frankly, sitting around complaining about the cops isn’t going to cut it.
Locally, we’ll help. Send us your ideas—big or small—aimed at increasing awareness of economic injustice in San Diego County or battling the problem head-on. If we can get behind it, we will. In 2012, let’s build on the momentum that started in 2011.
What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.