Less Visible Occupy Movement Looks for Staying Power
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
A protester being arrested last weekend at a march in New York.
Published: March 31, 2012
WASHINGTON — Six months after the Occupy movement first used protests and encampments to turn the nation’s attention to economic inequality, the movement needs to find new ways to gain attention or it will most likely fade to the edges of the political discourse, according to supporters and critics.
“They have fewer people, and it’s not a new story anymore that there were people protesting in the streets or sleeping in parks,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal organization that has strong ties to top Democrats and has encouraged the protests. “They need to think of new ways to garner attention and connect with people around the country.”
Driven off the streets by local law enforcement officials, who have evicted protesters from their encampments and arrested thousands, the movement has seen a steep decline in visibility. That has left Occupy without bases of operations in the heart of many cities and has forced protesters to spend time defending themselves in court, deterring many from taking to the streets again.
In Oakland, Calif., which at one point last year appeared to be one of Occupy’s strongholds, activists have had less than a handful of marches this year and no longer have any encampments in the city, according to a police official there. In New York, where the police evicted protesters from Zuccotti Park in November, the few protests in the past few weeks have been smaller than the ones last year, the police said.
With less visibility, the movement has received less attention from the news media, taking away a national platform.
Occupy does not have a traditional leadership structure, making it difficult for the movement to engage in conventional political organizing in support of state legislators and members of Congress, like the Tea Party has. And some activists, angry at politicians across the board, do not see electoral politics as the best avenue for the movement, complicating efforts to chart its direction.
Occupy activists acknowledge that building and maintaining a populist movement is daunting and that the clashes over the right to protest have drained some energy.
Bill Csapo, a 58-year-old member of Occupy Wall Street, the New York branch of the movement, answered the phone number listed on its Web site and offered his take on the group’s standing.
“Are we a little scarred? Of course,” he said.
He added: “The people who were driven out of Zuccotti Park in November haven’t gone anywhere and are still working. All the original committed people are still here. This is not a game — we are trying to save our civilization.”
Brian Grimes, a member of the movement who has been spending his days at McPherson Square in Washington, where the police still allow sit-ins and tents, acknowledged that the group needed to adapt its tactics to remain relevant.
“Like you’ll find in anything, you can’t stick to the same thing,” said Mr. Grimes, 35, of Montgomery County, Md. “Whether it’s education, health care or protests, you cannot be static, and you have to change your tactics.”
Mr. Grimes said that new ways of gaining attention could come in the form of flash mobs or banner drops from buildings, like the ones used by protesters in Europe.
“We need to keep them guessing,” he said, referring to the news media and the police.
The movement’s staying power will depend on the success of several events planned for the coming weeks. Despite recent actions that have fizzled, including an Occupy Corporations day in February, organizers are planning a strike and demonstrations on May 1, International Labor Day. But the response has been mixed, and activists now say that Americans could show sympathy for the cause in other ways, like not shopping that day.
Chris Longenecker, 24, a member of the group who is helping to organize the strike and protests in May, said the lull in attention over the past few months was due to the group’s focus on building up capacity for larger events.
“We are looking to late spring and summer,” he said. “We are reconnecting with our passive supporters who saw us lay more dormant in the winter. We have spent the vast majority of the winter laying roots across community organizations and labor and immigration.”
Whether Occupy has a resurgence, it has already had a significant influence on American politics, making economic inequality — and specifically the top “1 percent” — a major issue in the national dialogue.
In December, 48 percent of Americans said they agreed with the concerns raised by Occupy, although only 29 percent approved of the way the protests were being conducted, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
After that poll, Pew stopped surveying specifically about the movement. “The movement was not in the news as much coming into 2012, and the nation’s focus and our polling turned to the Republican primary,” said Michael Dimock, an associate director of research at Pew.
News coverage of Occupy has fallen off significantly since late last year, according to an analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
In October, coverage of Occupy made up 6 percent of the news generated by news organizations in the United States. That number climbed to 14 percent in the middle of November and then slid to 1 percent in December. The number remained below 1 percent in January and February and has been so small this month that the Project for Excellence in Journalism said it was equivalent to no coverage.
Although the coverage has fallen off, concerns about economic opportunity and equality are at the highest levels since the mid-1990s.
In a poll released by Pew on March 2, 19 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside of our control,” the highest number since 1994.
What is more, 40 percent of Americans — also the highest number since 1994 — agreed with the statement that “hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people.”
Ms. Tanden, of the Center for American Progress, said that even if the Occupy movement did not regain significant visibility, it would continue to have an impact on the presidential election, having forced even Republicans to begin talking about inequality.
“It wasn’t Democrats who said that Mitt Romney was a ‘vulture capitalist,’ it was Rick Perry,” she said, referring to the Texas governor and former Republican presidential candidate.
Erik Eckholm contributed reporting from New York.