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The Occupy movement is only little more than three months old, but it has started a national conversation about employment, inequality and financial regulation. NPR's Margot Adler looks back at the Occupy movement as it enters a new phase.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park on September 17th. The mainstream media pretty much ignored it for 10 days. Then, on September 24th, 80 people were arrested in a march, and videos of a young woman being maced by a police officer went viral. The media was there in force when 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1st. Events took place in hundreds of cities.
Violence flared at Occupy Oakland later that month. Protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park in mid-November. And when sitting students were pepper-sprayed at the University of California Davis, it prompted a video that went viral, the so-called walk of shame by the university's president. As students sat in silence, all you could hear were the clicks of the president's high heels.
There's pretty much agreement that the Occupy Movement has been creative in using symbols. The word occupy is so fluid it can be used in hundreds of contexts. The phrase, we are the 99 percent is so inclusive it actually includes anyone earning less than a half a million dollars a year. Frances Fox Piven, a professor of sociology and political science at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, says naming Wall Street as the target was also smart.
Most people don't understand the economic crisis, she says, but they do instinctively feel financial manipulation is a part of it. So, OWS, she says...
FRANCIS FOX PIVENS: Used symbols in a way that was brash and clear and much more innovative than any of the other efforts to raise issues of inequality or unemployment. People have been doing that for the last 30 or 40 years.
ADLER: And she says nothing they did worked. With the end of many encampments, the movement is in a new phase. At Zuccotti Park, you may find 20 people on a winter day, but when I walk into an indoor atrium at 60 Wall Street, there are about 70 people in planning meetings for OWS. It is one of many spaces they use throughout the city.
But the real challenge for the movement has nothing to do with camping or space. It's how to deal with the very inclusiveness that has made the movement popular.
Starhawk, an author and longtime activist, has visited 10 Occupies.
STARHAWK: I've jokingly called it a movement of raving drunks and former student body presidents.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STARHAWK: You have really, really smart people working very much from the head. And then you have people who are wanting to do nothing but drum day and night. It's not always easy to figure out how people with totally different perceptual styles, understandings of life, can work together and make decisions.
ADLER: Take the issue of the homeless who joined many encampments, or people with mental problems. Can you throw them out or are they an important part of the 99 percent with lessons to teach? Or take the new technology that has aided Occupy.
Organizer Lisa Fithian says some see it as a tool of privilege.
LISA FITHIAN: We were accused in the last night of doing a secret training yesterday 'cause people didn't know about it. Well, we put it out there every way we could but it was all electronic.
ADLER: Looking at the movement from the right, Josh Barro, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says he often chuckles when he sees the internal process discussions, the sensitivity to race and class. They assume, he says, that if you talk long enough everyone will come to agreement. But people within a movement have different views and values
JOSH BARRO: You have to recognize that sometimes you're going to have honest disagreements. And you have to be able to move forward in an environment where you realize that not everybody is going to agree on everything.
ADLER: But Fithian argues there's a new generation coming up that is learning there are other ways of seeing the world. So, bottom-line, is this a movement for specific changes as the Civil Rights Movement was? Or is it a movement to change the entire society, like May of 1968? Both tendencies exist in Occupy.
Barro believes the best thing for the movement to do is to pressure Democrats the way the Tea Party has pressured Republicans. But that would mean getting involved in electoral politics, and many in Occupy don't want that. Barro also says the use of the 99 percent may resonate but it's a problem. If you want a solution to the fiscal crisis...
That preserves a lot of the government programs that I think people on the left care about, you're going to need higher taxes in the long-term, not just on people making over $593,000 a year but well down the income scale. Certainly to a significant extent on people making more than, say, $100,000 a year.
Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism at Columbia University, has analyzed many social movements. He's on the let's-get-a-political-focus-here side of the debate, although from the left. But there's one thing the Occupy Movement has going for it, he says.
PROFESSOR TODD GITLIN: The Civil Rights movement was very unpopular with Americans for much of its duration. The anti-war movement represented little more than 10 percent of the public opinion when it began.
ADLER: This movement, still in its infancy, has majority support in many polls. And remember, there are often periods of quiescence in social movements. Early in the Civil Rights movement, people would often say it was over before it had really begun. So don't believe any pundit who tells you he knows the future of the Occupy movement. The only thing clear is it's already more creative and popular than many social movements of the past.
On the day protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park, Brenden Burke, the head of security at Occupy Wall Street, said we're like water: We will take whatever form we need to take to get to where we need to go. It's something to ponder.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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