Many supporters of the Occupy demonstrators are agitated over public officials' growing demands that the Occupy settlers move off of the occupied grounds. Might the Occupy movement benefit from moving forward? History teaches us that these moments can catalyze the next wave of a movement, those actions that institutionalize the change that they seek. What might that mean to Occupy? Perhaps it means acknowledging the achievements to date, looking to the lessons of history and assessing what forward means.
Already, the Occupiers have made an important contribution through their tenacity by their clear articulation about the discrepancy between the American creed and reality, and by their vision for a more just political system. They have taken the first steps toward shaping that vision into reality – declaring the status quo unacceptable – and perhaps now, public officials are forcing the Occupiers' collective hand for their next move in building and developing an effective movement. And here lies the potential of a transformative political movement.
Political movements begin with a spark – powerful communications, ideas and demonstrations. When the spark resonates – as the Occupy movement's has – the movements can evolve into a true force of change, much like those historic movements that came before Occupy and delivered true political transformations.
Already, the Occupy movement is groundbreaking in its approach, its breadth and its scope. Among its many contributions, Occupy has made a concise statement about the fundamental incompatibility of many of the elements of the United States' current system with the grand principles that it espouses. It has demanded basic political fairness and equality. It has captured the world's attention and generated new thought about the realities of our political system, broad swathes of empathy and a remarkable solidarity across numerous communities, both in the United States and in the rest of the world.
Occupiers have generated copious amounts of media coverage – both in their own media and in more traditional outlets. They've branded the all-important phrase, “We are the 99 percent.” In the process, they've crowded the shallow, unworkable message of the Tea Party out of the media spotlight. Along with that, they've garnered the ire of those who work hard to preserve the status quo – a system that leaves far too many out in the cold to be considered genuinely democratic.
Simultaneously, many Occupiers have also demonstrated how to build communities with shared values and shared resources such as food, drink, ideas, even libraries. At many Occupy camps, the demonstrators have devised systems of communication and structures that work to hear everyone and diminish no one, from which astute and creative ideas are emerging about how to apply these community values to the country and to the world at large, and how to establish real equality to accompany the ideal one that has been promised but not yet delivered.
Now, at this crossroad, Occupiers are facing at least one important question: What separates successful movements from failed ones? Two of the most successful movements in American history- the civil rights movement and the women's movement – achieved their goals through a multilayered, all-encompassing strategy. Although we most remember their bold, dramatic actions – such as sit-ins, boycotts and Freedom Rides – the vast part of the movement was not quite so conspicuous.
And these aspects of the movements were what institutionalized the transformations that they sought. These political entrepreneurs were engaged at every level of society, particularly in the halls of power in every level of government. They worked to move laws and policies toward their goals through legislative bodies in cities, counties, states and the Congress. When elected officials hindered their goals toward greater justice and equality, the movement ran their own candidates – and began to win. At the same time, another set of change agents entered federal and state court rooms to challenge the laws and practices that didn't comport with the basic tenets of fairness and equality. They appeared in the Supreme Court to construct civil rights and the meaning of the Constitution.
Through it all – the demonstrations and the engagement with the democratic institutions – successful movements established Constitutional amendments, vitally important legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and landmark precedents such as Brown v. Board of Education. And these laws, precedents and constructions shaped the future of the United States, ultimately making it a more just place.
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Of course, none of this would have been possible without winning some battles in the court of public opinion. All political transformations occur on two tracks – on one track, the political entrepreneurs strategically push the transformation forward. On the second track, journalists communicate the change agents' information, ideas and new frameworks to a broader audience.
Historically, such transformations – both in the US and abroad – took decades of challenging the status quo framing of what was or was not acceptable. But the landscape has changed. In the past, political entrepreneurs largely had two choices: first, to pound on the gates to reach the media's gatekeepers, and second, to generate micro-media – fliers and small “mosquito” presses to get their message out. Today, there are vast opportunities through multiple media channels to inform, build, challenge, inform and reframe through an increasingly connected world.
All politics are fluid, dynamic and ever-changing. They ebb and flow because of the interaction between the information, ideas, beliefs, emotions and actions that shape the next moment, and then the next. The Occupiers' next moves are important for both the future of the movement and the future of the law and institutions, which will then shape the future of the United States itself. One possibility is that the official showdown will move the Occupiers from occupying the lawns of the institutions to occupying the actual halls of the institutions, and perhaps that movement will galvanize the next step in facilitating the realization of its vision. Alternatively, they may return to the lawns, just outside of the wall of power. Or thirdly, they may take both paths, which may be one way to continue moving forward – simultaneously institutionalizing their goals while generating new media based on their successes and failures therein. This is motion, and indeed, the very word, “movement” implies motion.