Not since the ’60s has the United States seen a youth-driven group capture the attention and imaginations of activists nationwide. One year ago, the Occupy movement began rallying youth from Wall Street to Oakland in the name of economic justice on issues both national and local.
Occupy has its shortcomings – it has been criticized for not having a concrete agenda, its demonstrations are often messy and disorganized, and it has been short-lived in some areas. Nevertheless, Occupy did change the face of activism and how groups use technology to recruit and organize its activists. Its trademark sit-ins have been emulated for a variety of purposes, and its organizing slogan, “We are the 99%!” has shaped conversations and attitudes across the country.
The word “activism” usually conjures up images of huge gatherings and picket signs. While these images are consistent with the wide-scale protests of the 1960s and Occupy, Occupy also moved many forms of activism behind the scenes.
Deana Rohlinger is an associate professor of sociology at Florida State University specializing in social movements and mass media. She took particular interest in the operation of the Occupy movement in her city.
“A lot of people try to dismiss social media, but the college students in Tallahassee would let the community know what they needed. So they would say, ‘We need tents.’ ‘We need blankets.’ ‘We need some food’ or ‘We need toilet paper.’ They would also say, ‘Here’s what’s going on,’ ‘Here’s where we’re meeting and having working groups,’” she said.
“It can be a very, very, very effective tool for communicating, not only internally, but also to reach a broader public, especially those people who just can’t be involved.”
Occupy made getting involved easy – either show up at an encampment or follow the activities of demonstrators on Twitter or Facebook.
For many Occupy forces with encampments, there was no need to recruit. “People really just showed up at the same place at the same time and started talking to each other. And this happened all across the country. They’d start spreading the word that we’re going to occupy,” says Linnea Palmer Paton, 21, a member of Occupy Wall Street’s PR team.
The dynamic was much the same in Occupy Bloomington, which had an encampment at a park near Indiana University until it was disbanded in January. Nick Greven, 21, Bloomington, recalled the early weeks: “It was really interesting because there were large assemblies every day of upwards of 100 people. It was really cool to have all these people, who were frustrated, come together and discuss things,” he said.
Activism also was available to those who couldn’t show up at an encampment. For example, Occupy Chicago turned to social media after it was prevented from setting down roots. “We just had a street corner and were forced to walk back and forth down it at times,” explained David Oloroso, 23, a jack-of-all-trades at Occupy Chicago.
“We got thousands of followers to follow updates through Facebook and Twitter and it was a really easy way for people, who otherwise couldn’t partake in a protest, to follow them and still be involved.”
That is the beauty of Occupy, Rohlinger said. “Because of the Internet, everyone can get involved.”
Occupy also offered a model of protests that groups across the country have emulated. Though sit-ins date to the ’60s and even earlier, in the past year they have been used nationwide to protest issues ranging from working conditions to police brutality to tuition increases.
Occupy’s slogan, “We are the 99%,” has become ubiquitous as well. While economists might argue the accuracy of the percentage (generally used to illustrate the income disparity of the U.S. population) it has become a talking point for Americans in general and presidential candidates in particular.
For example, Mitt Romney referenced it when he spoke at a candidates’ forum in Miami in January. "The 1 percent's doing fine. I want to help the 99 percent. I want to help middle-Americans get jobs that pay good wages."
“The Occupy movement has been very good at changing the things that we’re talking about, not only trying to get people more involved in changing the political system, but also addressing inequality in the United States,” said Rohlinger.
Though many Occupy groups have reduced their presence or dispersed entirely, their impact continues to be felt. Its supporters point out that the ultimate goal is change at a local level, so many successes are not widely publicized.
“There’s actually a website called whattheheckhasoccupydonesofar.com and it lists a lot of the different achievements that local groups have done,” Palmer Paton said.
Other changes are harder to quantify, said Oloroso. “One of our biggest strengths is just how inclusive Occupy is, that we really want to include as many people as possible because it’s really not up to any one person, or any one type of philosophy. It’s differently shaped and created by its participants and its members.”
Even the Bloomington encampment, which met a disappointing end when the city forced its dwindling forces to leave the park on a cold winter’s day, had an effect on the community.
“It was largely considered a joke by most people, but it was successful in the sense that it brought people together who were interested in working on these issues and send some sort of message,” Greven said.