Making Sense of the Occupy Movement

The spontaneous protests are unprecedented in the United States, says a Tufts sociologist, but their impact on the 2012 elections is still unclear

Occupy Boston on Summer Street

Occupy Wall Street began on Sept. 17 after Adbusters, which calls itself an anti-consumer magazine, suggested that readers engage in a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest what it said were the undue corporate influence on democracy and the widening gap between the rich and poor in America. Since then, the movement has gone global, with Occupy movements in a number of countries.

The leaderless movement has no clear goals, but has attracted thousands of participants and plenty of media coverage. Sarah Sobieraj, an assistant professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, studies politics and media and is the author of Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism (NYU Press). This semester, she is teaching a course called Media and Social Change, and plans to bring her students to observe Occupy Boston. She talked with Tufts Now about the significance of the movement.

Tufts Now: Why are you so interested in the Occupy movement?

Sarah Sobieraj: There’s so much that’s fascinating about what we’re seeing, in part because this type of protest is unprecedented in the United States. These extended encampments in multiple cities are really unusual. It seems as though they sprang out of nowhere. Most movements in the United States start with light support that grows over time; this one instead seems to have exploded with a tremendous amount of involvement, even though the trajectory is less clear.

Are there any similarities between Occupy and other recent political movements?

There are similarities in tactics: Occupy evokes the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement and the occupation of university buildings during the Vietnam War. Having physical bodies in a space harkens back to those movements, though people now are staying for longer periods of time.

In terms of the message, though, Occupy is more reminiscent of the Global Justice Movement of late 1990s and early 2000s—which also made a broad social critique about the human costs of economic inequality. The message then was that vast global inequality was taking a dangerous toll on the environment and people in the global south, and that there was more concern about profit margins than human rights. It was tactically different, though, especially if we look at 1999 in Seattle, where efforts to shut down the World Trade Organization meetings via Direct Action erupted. It was overtly confrontational and disruptive; Occupy is more peaceful.

“One thing that’s really fresh and interesting is the use of social media” in the Occupy movement, says Sarah Sobieraj. Photo: Joanie Tobin“One thing that’s really fresh and interesting is the use of social media” in the Occupy movement, says Sarah Sobieraj. Photo: Joanie Tobin
Does the Occupy movement resemble the Tea Party?

They are both populist, of course, and they are both fed up. The people in both groups are expressing a very powerful sense of alienation from the political system. The Tea Party has been much more closely aligned with electoral politics, while Occupy seems relatively ambivalent about that. The key difference is that the Tea Party sees less government involvement as an important part of the solution, while the Occupy movement is saying we need more government involvement—regulation of financial institutions and greater government investment in social support programs, for example.

Will Occupy have an impact on the 2012 election?

I don’t know, because its goals are not clear yet. There’s been a ton of criticism saying that the movement doesn’t have a clear message, but that’s not fair. People paying attention will realize the movement is concerned with the human and social cost of economic inequality. For some people, it might be about paying their mortgage, while for others, it’s about finding a job or paying tuition, but these issues all link back to the same point. Participants are saying, “I held up my end of the deal. I worked hard. I did well in school, but my financial situation or future is uncertain. This isn’t the American Dream.” So, I hear a clear message, but what’s less clear are the demands. Once clear demands are agreed upon, we’ll have a better sense of whether the movement will pursue an electoral strategy.

I will be interested to see how the Massachusetts Occupy movement relates to the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren [who is running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Scott Brown, A81]. She sounds like an Occupy participant; she’s very vocal about expressing her own frustration with the lack of accountability for the financial havoc that has transpired. She could become a hero, or may be kept at arm’s length. This is not a group of people that is particularly enamored with electoral politics.

How can the movement function without a leader?

Not having a leader is not the same as not being organized. I think there’s a level of organization that’s easy to see if you go to an Occupy general assembly meeting in Boston. At these meetings, and in the different city occupations, there are working groups dealing with different issues, such as food, housing, legal concerns or health. So there is a relatively sophisticated level of organization, although it varies from city to city, and the authority is decentralized.

Does the fact that it seems to have no clear goals or demands weaken it?

Clear demands will be necessary to move forward, but choosing specific objectives is a mixed bag because the movement will inevitably lose some support from those who don’t agree.

How does Occupy differ from other recent movements?

One thing that’s really fresh and interesting is the use of social media. The last time we had a large turnout of youth was around the Obama presidential campaign and protests at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2008. Protesters tended to use blogs or Facebook as places to post fliers, almost like a virtual billboard. They would put up an announcement that said when and where meetings would be.

The Occupy movement learned from participants in the Arab Spring, and is very sophisticated in its use of social media. The use of Tumblr is a good example. It is an image-based blogging platform, and the We Are the 99% Tumblr allows people to post photos of themselves sharing their personal stories of financial struggle. Many people who can’t be present at Occupy can be involved.

Similarly, Livestream lets people see exactly what’s going on. Not only can you see everything, but there’s a place to live chat about it in the sidebar. Similarly, so many Twitter accounts have been started for Occupy that if you search that word on Twitter, you can get dizzy.

An immense exchange of information is happening. I saw a sign that said, “YOUTUBE IS A POWERFUL TOOL: USE IT.” That captures the attitude of the movement.

What has the national media coverage been like?

The coverage was very light when it started. The Occupy Wall Street protests didn’t get real attention until two protesters were sprayed with pepper spray and it was captured on video. The protesters appear to be just standing there, and then they are sprayed and then drop to the ground, crying. It was a striking image that made it onto TV news programs, and coverage increased even more as police arrested a large number of people on the Brooklyn Bridge later in the month.

The coverage now is interesting, because even though it’s getting a lot of attention nationally, the coverage is not politically oriented. I had one journalist ask me to estimate the number of pounds of beans I thought it would take for the protesters to survive the winter.

Do you think Occupy Boston will be able to continue?

There’s talk about whether and how to winterize and that’s the biggest challenge right now, the elements. That’s not to suggest it’s a small thing to sustain participation. I think the news attention helps with the numbers, but it’s difficult to sustain the interest of the media.

What do you expect to happen when your class visits Occupy Boston?

My students are interested in going to observe and learn. Most protests or rallies are open and encourage people to come and do that. We will talk about the media coverage and look at how the movement is characterized. It’s wonderful for teaching because it makes our course material come to life.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at


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