Throughout its nearly eight month existence, Occupy Wall Street has been fueled by the youthful enthusiasm and social media savvy of today’s digitally connected twentysomethings. But the generation that birthed Occupy may also prove to be the movement’s undoing.
The much-hyped May Day protests were billed as Occupy Wall Street’s comeback following last fall’s evictions of the occupation encampments around the country and the media was clearly eager to emerge from May Day with a definitive verdict about the state of the movement. In one widely publicized episode, Reuters was forced to backtrack after calling the movement “a dud” prior to the massive rally that served as May Day’s finale.
In spite of their doubters in the media, protesters came away from the day declaring victory based on the large turnout. One of the movement’s more prominent Tweeters, a man who goes by the online handle DiceyTroop, posted updates today that exemplified the protesters’ view May Day was a success.
“DOES THIS LOOK LIKE SOMETHING THAT IS **OVER** TO YOU???” he wrote alongside a link to a video of the protests.
“The mainstream media coverage of
#MayDay is a scandal. I don’t even know what else to say. We won the day, and the articles don’t care,” he said in another update.
Reports of Occupy’s demise may indeed have been exaggerated, however, the question surrounding Occupy is not whether large numbers of people are participating in the protests. It’s whether anyone else can hear them.
Saying Occupy Wall Street lacks demands and a specific message has long been one of the most common criticisms of the movement. Occupiers regularly dismiss this critique by pointing out their movement represents a diverse array of concerns. However, outsiders continually cite the lack of a unifying message as a reason they have trouble understanding and supporting the protests.
Building a movement and pushing for political change requires being concerned about how others perceive you. And yet, the lack of demands in Occupy isn’t the only area where the protesters seem unconcerned about what others think of their movement.
The tactics of the Occupy Wall Street protesters often seem more geared towards their own amusement than public relations. All of the drum circles, dance parties and costumes that permeate the protests regularly provide fodder for conservatives and others eager to dismissed the occupiers as unwashed punks.
Occupy Wall Street gained national attention through violent clashes with police at Occupy encampments that inspired outrage and sympathy around the world. Since the occupations were evicted, the Occupiers have switched to more traditional protest marches. Occupiers criticize the media for being overly focused on arrests and violence, but a cruel reality of this society is that, like sex, violence sells. It’s hard to make headlines and capture national interest with peaceful marches. Last night, when the police came in to clear out the protesters after the May Day demonstration, what seemed like 99 percent of “the 99 percent” left the area leaving behind a handful of protesters to get arrested and a lack of drama for YouTube and the nightly news.
It makes sense Occupiers aren’t focused on communicating to others. The movement was created by and for a generation of post-college freelancers and frustrated creatives who feel abandoned by a society with no entry level where their parents once enjoyed a higher degree of stability. Cut off from the American dream, this Occupy Generation has sought refuge in online communities complete with their own digital languages and notoriously high levels of internet-fueled introspection. Occupy Wall Street was born in this insular online world and the end result is a protest that is clearly having trouble communicating with the world at large.
Occupy Wall Street’s lack of demands may also be a generational issue. Our Occupy Generation grew up looking at the great social movements that defined the latter half of the 20th century–Civil Rights and the Vietnam War protests–in hindsight. The disaffected youth who make up the bulk of the Occupiers only know these movements in summation; the Civil Rights struggle was a fight for African Americans’ to have equality and the anti-Vietnam War protests were a flower power fueled quest for the nebulous notion of “peace.”
Unlike the Occupiers, their predecessors in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements often focused on specific issues. Incremental moments in the Civil Rights movement included the desegregation of individual educational institutions, stores and bus lines. Rather than simply antiwar movement pushed for an end to the specific conflict in Vietnam.
Victory for a protest movement isn’t based on the number of likeminded individuals who turn out for a demonstration. It’s about how much of an impact they have on the society at large. If Occupy Wall Street is to succeed, the young people who have driven the movement need to learn to look at what came before and at the world around them rather than simply Tweeting, livestreaming and marching their way into an echo chamber.