Occupy Wall Street Succeeds Where Bush-Era Peace Protests Failed

OWS has media coverage, political support, and a sense of generational significance

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NEW YORK -- Five weeks into its camp-out in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street has achieved a few notable benchmarks of mainstream legitimacy and success, even if its hasn't succeeded in bringing down the current financial system. Leading democratic politicians, including President Barack Obama and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, have expressed sympathy for the movement. Occupy Wall Street has also received an extraordinary amount of media coverage. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, nearly one-third of all economics-related reporting during the first week of October was in some way related to Occupy Wall Street; last week, an impending showdown between the police and protesters over the possible cleaning of Zucotti Park captured the front pages of the two main New York tabloids for several days. Perhaps most importantly, among Occupy Wall Street participants, there is a sense that an entire generation's worth of social and economic frustrations are just beginning to bubble over. 

"People are pissed off" says Lola Johnson, a musician in her mid-20s who was in Zucotti Park this past Thursday. "You can only keep on talking and talking for so long."

Suzanne Ibrahimian, an undergraduate at the New School who acts a facilitator for the occupation's Direct Action working group (the group responsible for planning marches and protests), agrees that Occupy Wall Street reflects a burgeoning frustration with the social and economic status quo. 

"It's good for people to realize they have limits," she says. "I'm relieved to see that people have a breaking point." 

Occupy Wall Street has media coverage, political support, and a sense of its generational significance. But why are these factors converging now -- rather than, for instance, in 2007, a year in which nearly 900 American soldiers were killed in Iraq? The presidency of George W. Bush helped inspire an anti-war effort that brought millions of people to marches and protests. But this anti-war effort failed to generate a grassroots, left-wing political movement capable of dominating discussion and seizing the public consciousness as effectively as Occupy Wall Street has.

Some Occupy Wall Street protesters attribute their success to a sense of desperation that, in their minds, simply didn't exist during the worst years of the Iraq War. 

"The anti-war movement wasn't based on a kind of material self-interested behavior the way that this is," says Jonathan Chabrier, a Brooklyn middle-school teacher who has been involved in the Occupy Wall Street, and who helped organize anti-war protests while studying for a masters' degree at The New School. "Occupy Wall Street is people responding to the austerity, cuts in social programs and unemployment that's everywhere. The anti-war movement is more of an ethical kind of commitment." 

Ellis Roberts, an unemployed former sanitation worker and self-identified communist who has been living in a corner of Zucotti Park called "Camp Class War," agreed that Occupy Wall Street has an immediacy that the anti-war movement lacked. 

"Necessity fuels a revolution, not moral argument," he said. "For the middle class, the economic situation is an inconvenience. But if the poor tighten their belts anymore, we'll be cut in half." 

Goldi Merhige, a musician and former anti-war activist in his mid-30s who came to Zucotti Park on Friday morning, had a more blunt assessment of the relative success and failure of both movements: "People care about money more than about other people's suffering in this country," he said.

But a lot of people did care about the U.S.'s campaign in Iraq, and the seeming urgency of the current economic moment doesn't solely account for the differences between the two movements' vastly differing impact on American public life. 

"I was in a march in Washington in 2004 where there were 300,000 of us," recalled Jodie Evans, a co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. "There haven't been 300,000 people in the street around Occupy Wall Street yet" (New York Times statistician Nate Silver recently estimated that around 70,000 people participated in Occupy-related events nationwide during a busy Saturday of protests earlier this month).

The anti-war movement was larger than Occupy Wall Street currently is, but its goals were more focused and more policy-oriented.  "We changed the whole election and turned everything around and antiwar candidates won," Evans said of the 2004 and 2006 elections, when voter discontent over the Iraq war propelled anti-war candidates like Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Cathy Castor of Florida to congressional seats. "And if you think back to where support for Obama came from, it was from the antiwar movement," she added. "It was a backlash against [Hilary Clinton's] support for the war." 

With U.S. soldiers still in Iraq and the anti-war Obama presiding over a major increase in the U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, the movement gradually became disillusioned with electoral politics. "At the time, people believed that voting made a difference and if you organized and educated that you would change how people voted," Evans said "And it hasn't .... All this rationalizing and believing in democracy and all that is not working. It's failed."

Occupy Wall Street itself has sprung from a certain popular disenchantment with politics, as well as with the potential for electoral politics to affect any meaningful change. According to Chabrier, the shift away from politics is a major difference between the anti-war movement of the Bush years and the Occupy campaign of today. "I think there's a general searching that's going on now, for a new idea, a new politics, a new kind of analysis of the crisis about capitalism, about how the world works." he says. "And everyone feels it, from the Wall Street Journal asking 'What the hell is going on with the stock market?' to people working manual labor jobs, asking where does all this financial bullshit mean? How do I relate to a real estate bubble? What does that even mean? There's a genuine openness that exists in those questions that's different from the antiwar movement."

This rejection of politics manifests itself in the Occupy movement's chosen form of protest. The anti-war movement held large rallies aimed at changing the minds of the country's elected officials. In New York, OWS is primarily focused on keeping the Zucotti Park camp-out going as long as possible. At a Direct Action working group meeting last week, about 40 activists engaged in a highly-technical discussion of the kind of tactics that could help them hang onto the park. For around two hours, attendees discussed various models of "educational empowerment" for their working group, and debated the formation of "affinity groups" and "spokescouncils" -- as well as "potential in-park escalation" and "eviction contingency plans." Matt, a Brooklyn-based teacher who attended the meeting (and who did not want his last name used), said that these kinds of open yet high-level discussions represent a major point of divergence with the anti-war movement. "The structure here is horizontal and incredibly empowering," he said. "The ant-war movement was based on national organizations that weren't horizontal and that were designed to get people to marches. This is an egalitarian on-the-ground culture."

While a march lasts only a single day, requires only short-term participation and promotes a widely agreed-upon political agenda, an occupation aims for community-building, dialogue and self-governance within a group of a highly-motivated activists. Occupy Wall Street's amorphous, non-political nature helps explains why the movement has generated excitement among young activists and attracted attention from traditional media. It also explains why the movement might quickly dissipate.

"I think the moral vision is pretty articulate," says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University Professor, Dissent magazine editor and author of a recent book on the history of the American left. "It's the alternatives that aren't clear and I think there's some debate over whether to even propose alternatives." The aimless, communitarian character of the Occupy campaign explains its current strength. Yet "down the road," says Kazin, "it's going to be a weakness because people will peel off if they don't like the amorphous nature of [Occupy Wall Street]," says Kazin.

Occupy Wall Street has exerted an outsized hold on the public, partly because of its differences with the earlier, and arguably less-successful anti-war movement. But in the next few months, Occupy Wall Street will find out if these differences in method, organization and objectives will eventually doom them as a campaign with practical objectives.