The Emergence and Challenges of The Occupy Wall Street Movement

Below is a final paper I wrote for a course I took at the University of Chicago on social movements:


According to the political process model, social movements are likely to emerge when insurgents have adequate resources to mobilize during times of political opportunity when elites are unstable and divided (McAdam 1982). In addition, Piven and Cloward (1977) argue that instability, as a result of economic change, weakens the structures of daily life and contributes to the emergence of the collective consciousness. Over the years, the intensifying inequalities have included increasing cuts to public services, a shrinking middle class, destruction of the environment, and real wages falling. Consequently, the Occupy Wall Street Movement emerged in Zuccotti Park, New York City as a result of such an environment. The movement was able to ignite because city space provided a connection between varieties of people. The development of relationships that were created have allowed for an even greater expansion of consciousness and a national definition of conditions as being unjust and unsustainable. Additionally, technology and the media were able to expand information of the movement’s existence and mobilize more protesters.

An Environment of Growing Inequality

The deindustrialization that occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s devastated many cities in the United Sates and prompted a shift from Fordism to neoliberalism. As the Civil Rights Movement faded and competition from West Germany and Japan put pressure on profit levels, corporations regrouped to take back the acquired rights from the New Deal and the great society, through the influence of domestic politics. Corporate lobbying against civil rights resulted in anti-immigrant policies, college students in debt and unable to find a job, foreclosures on homes, a roll back of unions, taxes on the affluent, as well as a roll back on financial, environmental, and workplace regulations, on voting rights for the minorities, poor, and the young. Also, there was a spread of propaganda that claimed welfare to be damaging to the economy and character of the American poor (Piven 2012). As a result, this shift created a variety of complexities, tensions, and inequalities as wealth has been unevenly distributed, benefiting the few over the many. These practices have resulted in economic decline and a recession that hit society with an unemployment rate peaking at 10.1 percent in 2009 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Interestingly, even during the economic crisis with wages at a low level, not indexed to inflation and the unemployment rate high, corporate productivity has increased and so have corporate profits (Piven 2012).

Practices of the Public Sector and Non-Profit Organizations

For a long time the public sector has been responsible for providing social services for the poor and the vulnerable. However, over the years it has been increasingly adopting the free-market model and placing little value on democratic ideals such as equity and justice. Consequently, the government has pushed non-profit organizations to take the leading role in providing vital human services. However, most organizations depend on the government for over half of their revenues and some need government to support their entire budget. As a result of such high dependence, the government developed competitive performance-based contracting with non-profit organizations, which discourages organizations to collaborate with one another for the benefit of civil society (Lipsky 1985). The struggle for limited resources has forced non-profits to enter relationships with for-profit businesses and adopt a corporate model that turns away from encouraging community participation and volunteerism. As non-profit organizations choose profits over public interests, they begin to look more like for-profit businesses. Competition has also encouraged non-profits to depend on entrepreneurs and executives of large companies, who take advantage of charitable causes to further their business investments, and direct organizations to function in ways that will benefit their individualistic interests. Over time, both the government and the non-profit organizations on which the public depended for getting their human needs met, adopted methods of the market that became detrimental to democracy (Eikenberry & Kluver 2004).

According to Robert Dahl (1956) the United States political system is, “among the most opaque, complex, and confusing, and difficult to understand.” Thus, the majority of the poor and middle class people act as bystanders and thus public opinion is silenced. As political engagement declined among the poor and the middle class, the government has favored economic development, targeting services to high value areas, and giving subsidies to wealthy corporations. For example, the government gave a subsidy to the development of the luxury Blackstone Hotel in downtown Chicago. This type of subsidy is usually intended to help poor communities, yet instead of addressing inequality, the attention was turned to generating economic profitability (Dietz 2011). As a result, many people began to recognize the current structure of competition and profit making as a failure of neoliberalism.

The Philosophy of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

In a pluralist model every citizen has a chance to participate and obtain a voice in politics. Citizens are expected to be active, evaluate societal conditions, and vote for those politicians who match their beliefs. However, in many cases the majority rule does not exist because those who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds with limited education tend to vote less or not at all (Dahl 1956). Those who do vote, tend to have little influence over wealthy policy entrepreneurs who greatly influence the political system by investing their resources and expecting a return on those investments (Kindgon 1984).

However, people have begun to challenge the dominant systems of authority and promote alternative imaginaries, also known as contentious politics (Leitner, Sheppard & Sziarto 2008). The current hierarchical and institutionalized system triggered indignation and spawned the Occupy Movement to develop an egalitarian structure that is opposite to the dominant norms. The movement established itself as a non-violent, leaderless, and horizontally organized mobilization of people who claim to be the 99% and who refuse to tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1% (Marcuse 2011). Horizontality is a decentralized network that aims to limit power relations by actively constructing non-hierarchical power relations that challenge inequalities between people, and embracing diversity. Therefore, the movement built a power not of domination but of collectivity also known as prefigurative power. This type of power intends to construct new power relationships and a fair world, in which people truly desire to live in, as they take control of their lives, neighborhood, work, community and education. Protesters, who engage in creating such a power, hope for it to trickle out and affect other relations on a greater scale (Maeckelbergh 2009). Further, the Occupy Movement has not mobilized around any specific issues because historically this type of strategy has not led to desired structural changes. Therefore, the movement refuses to become defined by a specific set of policy demands and fall victim to the current structures of political decision-making that supports exploitation and domination (Marcuse 2011). As one can see, the Occupy Movement does not have any specific demands and instead it is demanding a country of morality and human rights.

The Role of Cities in Movement Mobilization

The close proximity that New York City provides, allows people from varied backgrounds to collide with one another and ignite diverse social relationships with ease and frequency. As a result of such relationships, an array of resources, ideas, and solutions have potential to emerge. Networking has occurred through face-to-face interactions as well as through virtual space, which has allowed people to share critical knowledge and develop alternative imaginaries (Leitner, Sheppard & Sziarto 2008).  

Cities also enable people to form strong tie relationships, which typically have high reciprocity as well as intimacy and trust. Such ties reduce uncertainty and inspire people to take more risks and contribute their own valuable resources to a greater cause (Nicholls 2008). Strong ties have inspired Occupy protesters to give up their time and camp out on sidewalks and put themselves at risk of getting fined or arrested. Additionally, cities can bridge people to develop weak ties, which are relationships that can be easily broken off yet allow for opportunities to access new resources and information that is outside of the close-knit networks (Nicholls 2008).

Moreover, the city was also an important factor that allowed people to develop further meanings and identities. Although the Occupy Movement is more than just about financial issues, organizing around Wall Street has become symbolic because that is where money comes from, and money is a main factor that has contributed to the many struggles. In particular, taking over a part of Wall Street’s space such as Zuccotti Park, named after a prominent real estate lawyer and power-broker, has allowed the protesters to create an identity of what they believe in and what they stand against (Marcuse 2011).

The Role of the Media

History reveals that the media can have a critical role in the success of a movement. For example, the media was a key contributor to the spread of the Piquetero’s spontaneous eruption in Argentina during the economic crisis in 2001 (Sitrin 2006). Accordingly, Occupy’s weak tie relations with the media also assisted in expanding the movement’s philosophies across the country. Nonetheless, protesters are cautious not to become co-opted and reproduce a society that endows people of power. After all, the mainstream media is owned by some of the largest corporations in the world (Piven 2012).

At the beginning, the mainstream media belittled the Occupy Movement, yet after some time, it began to take the protesters more seriously. As a result, the spread of media coverage to the front pages of newspapers and television newscasts provided legitimacy for the movement and persuaded more people to seek out information on Facebook, Twitter, and Occupy’s Web site. The creation of the Occupy website is an example of a resource that emerged and has provided aspiring participants with information about the movement and how to join. Furthermore, the social media has become important in spreading information, awareness, and gaining support across vast distances. As one can see, relations with such unlikely institutions are helpful, especially if coverage is positive.

Technology as a Means to Scale Up

The Occupy movement has been able to capitalize on its popularity in New York and reproduce in other cities. According to the Occupy Wall Street website, the movement is currently working to expand its influence and scale up to a national level by bringing occupiers from around the country to Washington D.C. The movement is organizing vehicles and their plan is to begin in Los Angeles on April 2, 2012. People will travel for one week stopping in 25 cities as they gather move participants to occupy and protest in Washington DC. However, even though the Occupy Movement is scaling up to a national level, it can still be viewed as a multi-scale movement because people continue to organize locally by occupying their city halls and universities. Evidently, the Internet has played a key role in generating networks and re-scaling the movement.

However, relying heavily on the Internet and other technologies has both costs and benefits, as it can empower some while at the same time disempowering others. Using technology to mobilize the public may create inequalities among differently positioned people, and may unintentionally exclude people who may not have access to or an ability to use technologies. Currently, information presented on the Occupy website is in English, which creates difficulties for those who are not native to this language. (Leitner, Sheppard & Sziarto 2008). Since the United States is a county of many cultures, it may be difficult and timely to uncover which languages are presently used and to develop a website that gives everyone a fair opportunity to understand and participate.

Significance of Organizations

In his piece, The Semisovereign People (1975), Schattschneider argues that as one expands his allies he also expands his opponents. Therefore, a movement that has limited resources must be careful in its tactical advancements or find methods to generate more resources. Although it is fundamental that the Occupy Movement pursues its goals through non-traditional and innovative methods, without permitting anyone to dictate an agenda or tactics, it may still be important to learn how to navigate through the capitalistic system by building partnerships with organizations that have a vertical power structure. Aitchison (2011) argues that movements become successful when they combine a variety of strategies to achieve political and social change. History has also demonstrated that movements, such as the 2006 immigration movement in Chicago, relied on the support of organizations. Although the ability and willingness of the people to mobilize proved to be the major source of capacity, the event also showed that organizations are critical in advancing the interests of a community. So, the movement gained great momentum through the use of union halls, schools, churches, and the Latino media. (Betancur & Garcia 2011). Therefore, considering the resource mobilization model and accepting support from external groups may enable the movement to have a greater influence (McAdam 1982).

Currently the Occupy movement consists of mainly white middle class protesters, but formal organizations can provide the movement not only with resources but a connection to the poor. For example, organizations may help mobilize people who may not have access to technologies or knowledge of the English language. Furthermore, forming relationships with organizations can provide the Occupy Movement with more participants. Firstly, employers of organizations may be more receptive to the movement and allow employees to miss work in order to participate in certain events. Also, organizations can connect the poor with resources such as transportation or childcare and increase participation in that way. Moreover, organizations may provide the movement with physical space where people can gather in case of bad weather. Therefore, organizations are complimentary to the Occupy Movement and can help the movement spread information and scale up. In the end, such collaboration can help the movement to become a source support to the poor (Piven 2012).

Setbacks of the Occupy Movement

Protesters have started shifting their practices from symbolic communication of grievances to disrupting institutions. For example, about a dozen protesters entered Chase bank in Lower Manhattan and withdrew their money while 300 others stood outside shouting and beating drums (Buckley & Donadio 2011). As a result of such direct actions, officials become increasingly worried as the movement begins to change public opinion and affect electoral politics. In particular the population that is being most influenced by the movement is the same group that put Obama in office; the young. It is advantageous to have the Democratic Party in power because it is the most vulnerable to the force of this movement. The movement threatens to divide Democratic constituencies and has the potential to push politics to do what they typically never do. However, the Occupy Movement should be cautious because political worries over the 2012 elections will lead to temptations to scold the protesters and break up the movement. Clearly, president Obama will continue to pay more attention to his Wall Street and corporate supporters and try to figure out ways of silencing the movement (Piven 2012). Even if demonstrations and disruptions continue to expand the scope of conflict and appeal to the public, they may also create greater political rigidity and risks.

The climate for movements is changing and massive police repression has been a major setback for the Occupy Movement as protesters are trying to sustain against a difficult and powerful opposition. Many protesters have been arrested, fined, and pepper sprayed. For example, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed an ordinance that requires protesters to register for a permit in order to demonstrate during the NATO and G8 summits that were supposed to take place in May 2012. Those who do not obey the strict regulations will be punished with harsher fines that can cost protesters up to $1,000 (Flowers 2012). Emanuel’s propaganda and demonization of protesters have had a negative effect on participation (Piven 2012).  The growth of the movement is stalled because many people do not have the means to take risks, and most of the time the need for survival trumps the desire to make positive structural changes. Therefore, it is important for the environment to be non-threatening to people who wish to mobilize.

As a result, the Occupy Movement may benefit from modeling tactics executed by the ‘Right to the City’ movement, by establishing concrete requests (Mayer 2009). Manuel Castells (1978) also argues that making alliances and penetrating the political system permits the movement to shift from simply putting pressure to having power. Since Occupy’s demands for redistribution of wealth and universal rights are very complex and difficult to attain, it may take a while for the movement to achieve significant progress. After all, the power of money is colossal and without acknowledging that fact and finding a balance between reality and the ideal, the movement will continue to make symbolic victories that can be easily ignored (Maeckelbergh 2009). To maintain the Occupy Movement, protesters may need to be flexible and develop concrete requests that will help shape judicial rights and create a non-threatening climate that will give way to progress.

The Occupy Movement is functioning in a capitalist system, making it hard to advance without softening-up politicians. One strategy that can help alleviate the tension between the state and the people, and get elites like Rahm Emanuel to reduce risks for people to experiment with the movement, is by having legitimate leaders who support the Occupy Movement and who have connections to politicians, advocate on behalf of the movement in the political realm. Leaders from formal organizations may engage in insider tactics such as legislative lobbying, participating in government committees, or providing public testimony in order to advance a specific piece of legislation that may alleviate tensions between protesters and politicians (Mosely 2010). Individuals that are considered legitimate in the political realm may even compel politicians to change their focus from their individualistic interests to their responsibility to the greater society. Whether or not the elite politicians are able to become altruistic and receptive to a change of consciousness is not guaranteed, but it is important to make attempts and stay persistent nonetheless. However, internally the Occupy Movement must remain horizontal and maintain a power structure that is represented by the many. In addition, the movement must persist in disruptive outsider tactics such as demonstrations and boycotts (Mosely 2010). While some protesters may be resistant to organizational leaders advocating on their behalf, others may welcome the opportunity. Such conflicting viewpoints may actually create opportunity to generate innovation and new ways of moving forward (Maeckelbergh 2009). 


The neoliberal economic and political conditions gave momentum to the Occupy Movement. Additionally, Manuel Castells argues that the city reinforced solidarity and promoted the development of the social movement or as he calls it the “Urban Struggle.” The city gave power to protest because the spatial proximity brought people together and allowed them to expose their struggles and exploitations, resulting in enhanced consciousness. Moreover, geographic location was an important factor because it permitted the Occupy protesters to develop their identities and gave them meaning and purpose. As a result, there was an increase in the likelihood of strong and weak tie relationships to develop, which helped foster a strong and resourceful movement. Just like a chameleon that can change the color of its skin; the Occupy Movement must also become changeable and flexible in order to survive in the neoliberal environment. This movement may be sustainable if it were able to change between using non-traditional means as well as institutionalized tactics to pursue its goals. As the political climate becomes resistant to social movements, connecting different approaches such as weak tie relationships with the media and individuals who can advocate in the political realm, can help the Occupy Movement become impactful. Nevertheless, Piven (2012) argues that the Occupy Movement has achieved the first phase of effectively communicating extreme inequality issues, and in phase two, it is extremely important that the protesters take action through collective forms of disruption while still maintaining internal forms of direct democracy.



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