The purpose of bold, symbolic dissent is to catalyze debate, to challenge the inertia of the status quo with the moral clarity of a refusal to acquiesce in the face of clear injustice. When Gandhi led a long people's march to the sea to collect salt in 1930, in defiance of the British colony's Salt Act, which gave the crown a monopoly on salt and forbid citizen from collecting or selling the vital nutrient, his dramatic act of non-violent civil disobedience mobilized Indians to pursue independence, which they finally achieved in 1947.
The Occupy protests have succeeded in galvanizing a conversation in the United States--unseen since the 1970's--about equity, inequality, opportunity, the influence of money in politics, and the outsized power of corporations and financial institutions. Whether this renewed national dialogue ignited by the occupations will result in substantive changes that have a meaningful impact on peoples' lives depends on three factors.
First, the most immediate salience of the occupations will be on how public officials, especially Democrats, engage with the issues at the heart of the protests. OWS has fundamentally shifted the frame of the national political conversation, making possible policy positions that would have felt untenable, and precariously progressive, to establishment power brokers just two months ago. By shifting the political-ideological landscape, and redefining the terms of debate, OWS could play a crucial role in determining the key issues at stake in the Presidential campaign and other electoral contests next fall. And in the shorter term, the movement could impact the policy stances that the President and members of Congress take in the lead-up to 2012, stances that will be public evidence of their accountability (or lack thereof) to the "99%".
Second, the energy of the movement will ultimately need to be channeled to support organizations and campaigns with the institutional capacity to develop strategic and sustained pressure--at multiple levels-- to force decision-makers to implement specific policies. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's developed momentum through a set of a specific, strategic direct action campaigns that won a series of socially transformative victories--building from the Montgomery bus boycott, to the Greensboro lunch counter desegregation sit-ins, to the Freedom Rides, to the March on Washington, to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is an age-old adage that power only responds to power. Change will only come if the broad-based frustration given voice by OWS can be directed at specific targets, and leveraged to win concrete victories.
Strategic and sustained direction could manifest in a number of ways. It could mean an upsurge of participation in and support for unions, the only civil society actor whose interests are naturally aligned with those of the protesters that also has the institutional capacity to sustain long-term mobilizations. Working America, the affiliate of the AFL-CIO that organizes non-union workers, signed up approximately 25,000 new recruits in the second half of October, partially thanks to the visibility and momentum of the occupations. It could take the form of political and electoral organizing to support specific congressional candidates in vulnerable districts--this is the route pursued, with success in the last election cycle, by the Tea Party. Or this energy could turn towards non-electoral campaigns in support of specific issues, such as a jobs bill, serious financial market regulation, or a constitutional amendment to reign-in the influence of money in politics through campaign finance reform.
Critically, channeling the momentum of the occupations does not mean that the Occupy movement itself should necessarily endorse specific goals or demands, run electoral candidates, or develop the internal institutional capacity to wage targeted, specific campaigns. Much of the strength and vitality of the Occupy movement derives from its open and inclusive structure and process--and the corresponding lack of demands--which allows organic leadership, and encourages participation, democracy, and diversity. The political-ideological influence of OWS arises from its success in defining the terms of the public debate and shifting public expectations about accountability, equity, and democracy with memes like "We are the 99%", not in pursuing narrow programmatic agendas. The challenge will be for the Occupy movement to work synergistically and organically to support campaigns led by other entities, not to itself develop a unified policy platform.
Third, the OWS movement will need to both broaden and deepen. This will require significant shifts, which are to some degree in tension with each other.
Broaden, by creating the space and possibility for people to actively participate in the movement without attending three hour long General Assemblies, or sleeping outside in the rain and snow. Given that the most recent Pew Research Poll indicates that almost 40% of Americans support OWS, there appears to be significant opportunity to expand the movement. However, the intensely participatory process, alongside a diffuse structure, makes it difficult for sympathizers that have jobs and other commitments to become active participants and leaders. Mechanisms need to be developed to allow people to help lead this movement and still hold down a job.
The movement will also need to deepen--by strengthening internal cohesion, building skills, and developing a more coherent analysis among members and participants. Although many of the core OWS participants in DC, New York, Oakland, and a few other cities are longtime organizers, they are in the minority. Organizing skills are the linchpin of successful movements. For example, the Highlander School, formed in 1932, has long served as a critical catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building by nurturing leadership, skills, and analysis among organizers and impacted communities.
All a tall order for this nascent movement, certainly. But in the context of a social contract that feels fundamentally broken to those who have been left out and left behind, politically and economically, over the past three decades, and alongside the success of citizen uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa last Spring, this may be the moment of possibility.
Follow Terra Lawson-Remer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lawsonremer