The Impact of Occupy Wall Street: Some Early Indicators

Kevin Young Oct 11, 2011

A quote well-known among activists, variously attributed to Gandhi or US labor leader Nicholas Klein, says that “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” In the space of just the past several weeks, it’s possible to discern the first three steps of this progression in the response of the US political, economic, and media elite to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. This fact should be a great source of encouragement for all those brave and dedicated individuals who have helped build this movement.

They Ignore You, They Laugh at You…They Admire You? The Liberal End of the Corporate Media

The progression of New York Times coverage has been interesting, and provides one measure of the movement’s increasing impact. The first stage, “ignoring,” lasted a little over a week, during which the Times published just one short clip in print (on page 22) about the Wall Street occupation, though a few postings also appeared on the paper’s “City Room” blog. “Laughing” came next. A notoriously misleading and condescending story on September 25 by Times reporter Ginia Bellafante, entitled “Gunning for Wall Street, with Faulty Aim,” reproduced all of the imagery that was once used by pseudo-intellectuals and media commentators to try to discredit the 1960s movements for Civil Rights, freedom of speech, peace, and other causes. Bellafante argued that “the group was clamoring for nothing in particular” and criticized “its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.” The story focused on a handful of eccentric individuals in a crowd of hundreds, portraying the protesters as angst-ridden youth and psychological deviants. Two days later, an almost equally egregious Times article by Joseph Goldstein gushed with sympathy for the police; rather than describing the unprovoked use of pepper spray and physical violence against nonviolent protesters, Goldstein said simply that “efforts to maintain crowd control suddenly escalated.” And on October 1, the Times online editors were caught changing the original caption on a photo to blame the protesters for marching onto the Brooklyn Bridge; while the original caption said that “After allowing them onto the bridge, the police cut off and arrested” the protesters, the changed version less than an hour later described a “tense showdown” in which “police arrested hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators after they marched onto the bridge.”

But not all Times coverage has been equally terrible, and it seems to have gotten a bit better over the past two weeks. On September 27, the Times printed a letter from a journalist excoriating Bellafante’s column. As Peter Hart of the media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting noted, “It is very unusual to see such direct criticism of the New York Times in the Times itself.” News stories have become somewhat more honest in their depictions of the protesters’ message and composition. One October 8 blog post quoted a black college professor who noted that “the movement was gaining in diversity” and who compared Occupy Wall Street to the US anti-slavery movement—certainly a far cry from Bellafante’s earlier report.

Most surprising, though, was an October 9 editorial from the Times that represents by far the paper’s most favorable treatment of the movement to date. The editors derided “the chattering classes” who “keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions,” saying that “the message—and the solutions—should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.” (The “chattering classes” presumably include many Times writers.) The editorial went on to condemn the country’s historic levels of inequality and, in a comment quite radical indeed for the Times, said that government “policy almost invariably reflects the views of upper-income Americans versus those of lower-income Americans.” Moreover, the editorial was entirely free of any condescension.

Of course, much press coverage of the occupations continues to be dismissive, factually inaccurate, and condescending. But there has been a substantial shift, at least in some prominent news outlets, and that shift is a testament to the growing numbers, energy, and geographic reach of the movement. The bigger a movement gets, the harder it is for corporate media hacks to dismiss and distort it. The Times, CNN, and other outlets have also received a barrage of criticism for their negative portrayals of the protests. Here, and in other ways, social media have certainly played a role; the image that captured the Times’s caption-changing trick has been shared almost 6,500 times on Facebook. During the first week Stephen Colbert also had an amusing satire of typical media coverage of the movement, seen by perhaps millions of people. And independent outlets like Democracy Now! have provided a string of solid reports that have made the corporate media’s coverage look silly and superficial by comparison.

They Fight You

The recent responses of corporate elites and right-wing politicians have been a good deal more hostile, and also provide an indication of the movement’s growing momentum. In late September “the chief executive of a major bank” telephoned Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin to ask “Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” The unnamed CEO said that “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” and was “clearly concerned” according to Sorkin (who immediately went to check out the occupation for his friend). Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that he’s “increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country.” In response to the protesters’ slogan “We are the 99 percent,” some financial elites in Chicago have proudly announced that “We are the 1 percent.” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has characterized the movement as a “dangerous” expression of “class warfare.” Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island, speaking on a radio show this past Friday, was even more candid:

“[W]e have to be careful not to allow this to get any legitimacy,” he warned. “I’m taking this seriously in that I’m old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s when the left-wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy,” he said. “We can’t allow that to happen.”

King and colleagues are already preparing for the fighting stage, it seems—another sign of the movement’s power and mass appeal. (Within barely 48 hours, an image of King with this quote had been shared almost 30,000 times on Facebook—another indication of social media’s key role in disseminating information.)

They Channel You

Many Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have felt compelled to express some degree of sympathy or support for the movement. President Obama told a press gathering that “I think it expresses the frustration the American people feel.” Senator John Kerry insists that “I’m very, very understanding of where they’re coming from.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says “God bless them for their spontaneity. It’s young, it’s spontaneous, it’s focused and it’s going to be effective.” As Mark Lander recently pointed out, “Obama, in a series of hard-edged speeches around the country, has channeled many of the grievances of the movement.” Doing so may be politically risky for Obama and the Democrats, however, given their faithful service to the banks and corporations now under attack. Lander observes that “the president also oversaw a bailout of [the] banks, appointed a Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, who is viewed by the protesters as a shill for Wall Street and pushed a reform of the financial industry that many in the movement condemn as shamefully inadequate in curbing its excesses.” And many OWS participants seem to be very wary of these attempts at cooptation by the Democrats.

In light of the responses of Obama and other Democrats, the classic aphorism seems too simplistic: some will directly fight you, but others will try to co-opt you and your movement for political gain. In this third stage, rather than fighting the protesters, many liberal politicians and intellectuals have suddenly declared their support, or at least “understanding,” for them. This trend is in keeping with historical patterns. As a leading scholar of the Civil Rights movement, Doug McAdam, argued in his 1982 classic Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, “elite involvement in social protest is generally reactive, occurring only as a response to pressures generated by a mass-based social movement.” But not all elites respond equally, and some employ multiple strategies in response. McAdam observed that the elite “response typically consists of a two-pronged strategy that combines attempts to contain the more threatening aspects of the movement with efforts to exploit the emerging conflict in a fashion consistent with [those elites’] own political interests.” The Democrats now seem to be testing out the latter strategy. Others, like the Times editors and other liberal intellectuals, have come to express sympathy for the cause, but perhaps more in the interest of saving face and not being left on the wrong side of history. Liberal elites’ evolving responses to the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s offer close parallels. In all such cases, though, the responses from liberal politicians and intellectuals are yet another sign of the growing power of the movement, which is now too big for them to ignore.

You Win? Labor, Diversity, and the Potential for an Independent Mass Movement

The expanding support for the movement from large labor unions like CWA, SEIU, UFT, the NYC transit workers, and even the AFL-CIO leadership is yet another indication of momentum, as many Z writers have noted. And it’s an extremely important development in itself, which could lead to the expansion of the protests into a genuinely mass movement. My sense is that the support of the labor leadership is significantly more genuine than that of Obama, Pelosi, and Kerry. But it’s also true that the big unions are relative latecomers to the movement, who signed on only after the hard work of the initial organizers and ensuing police repression had garnered the occupation some momentum. Faced with the choice of signing on or being left in the dust, they have started to offer their support. The labor leadership is of course quite a diverse bunch: many labor leaders are genuine and in fact quite radical, many are bureaucrats and Democratic lapdogs, and many fall somewhere in between. There is always some danger that some labor officials or liberal organizations will try to water down the movement’s radical demands or channel them into support for the Democratic Party. Like most movements, OWS will have to struggle to maintain its militancy while also maintaining the support of the union leaderships and the big liberal organizations. In any case, the fact that big unions have started to endorse the movement is still more evidence of its power. And unions’ presence and support is certainly welcomed by most of the prior Wall Street occupiers, who understand that building a mass protest movement requires cooperation with liberals and reformists as well as revolutionaries.

There are many other indicators of the movement’s success that one could mention: the fact that Occupy Wall Street has inspired similar actions in dozens of cities across the United States, the grassroots coalition-building among diverse groups that often work in isolation from one another, the increasing diversity of both the movement and its leadership, and the opening of a democratic space for discussion of alternatives to capitalism, authoritarianism, racism, patriarchy, and war. Whatever the short-term effects of the movement, these accomplishments won’t fade quickly. (For a good analysis of these successes by one movement organizer, see here.)

It’s obviously far too early to predict the long-term impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The deep structural injustices associated with corporate and financial power won’t be rectified quickly or all at once; in this context, the practical meaning of that fourth stage—“winning”—is still unclear. Movement organizers will continue struggling with the challenges of building a long-term movement that can unite oppressed sectors of society and exert a strong impact on policy—i.e., working toward concrete reforms—while trying to avoid the factionalism, reformism, and absorption into institutionalized politics that have weakened so many past movements. The Occupy Wall Street movement is still in its infancy. But the above developments provide some preliminary measure of the substantial political effect that the movement has had in just a few weeks, and are encouraging indicators of its future potential.

Kevin Young is a member of the Organization for a Free Society (OFS), one of the groups helping to organize the Occupy Wall Street movement. For more info, check out

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