Occupy: Flash Mob Politics or Social Movement?

by Frank Gilliam on October 9, 2011

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Occupy

One of the most interesting and entertaining phenomena of this political season is the so-called “Occupy” trend. Started a few weeks ago by a group generally referred to as Occupy Wall Street, people have been gathering at city halls, corporate headquarters, and other institutions of power across the United States to protest a wide range of social and economic ills.
Journalists, pundits, celebrities, and politicians have been offering their views on these gatherings. Some, such as Rep. Eric Cantor, have criticized them for inciting Americans to turn against Americans. Others, like LA Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa have issued statements of support for the Occupy participants. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain says the participants need to quit complaining about corporations and take individual responsibility for their employment status. Even President Obama has recognized Occupy as representing the sentiments of many Americans.
What everyone wants to know, it seems, is what is this all about? Do these gatherings represent anything significant or are they simply the shenanigans of the idle unemployed.
One way to think of this is what I call flash mob politics. As anyone under 30 knows, a flash mob is a group of people who assemble in a public place and act out some random performance. The “mobs” are organized by social media and other forms of electronic communication (email, Facebook, Foursquare, etc.) but with little or no apparent leadership. The first flash mob started in 2003 at Macy’s in Manhattan when a group of about 70 people gathered around the rug department with the ostensible purpose of shopping for a communal “love rug”.
Occupy certainly shares some of the elements of a flash mob – they assemble suddenly in public spaces, they utilize information technology to organize, and the gatherings often have a performative aspect to them (e.g., people sing, dance, chant, drum). Where Occupy differs, however, is that it has vaguely political undertones. In many instances the target of their wrath is corporate greed; other times it is the plight of the under/unemployed; sometimes the focus is on a specific issue like climate change, the Afghan war, or medical marijuana; and in yet other cases it is all of the above and more.
As a vehicle for long-term social and political change, however, flash mob politics has severe limitations. In other words, social networking and coordination may not be enough to produce significant changes in society. For instance, how long can Occupy maintain its activities without material resources? Likewise, Occupy will ultimately have to develop a core narrative that explains its preferred policy and action agenda. Finally, it is hard to imagine that Occupy will be able to sustain its efforts without a leadership structure and a “face” of the group.
What American history has shown is that a social movement is the type of group action that can lead to significant change. Perhaps the biggest difference between social movements and flash mobs is that social movements focus on a specific goal and issue area. Although they share some things with flash mob politics – informality, diffused communications channels, and a list of strains and grievances – they pay much more attention to the identification of resources, continuous leadership, and strategic political opportunities all wrapped into a core narrative structure.
An example of a potent social movement is the modern civil rights movement (1950-73). Its narrative was about America living up to its fundamental values; it had resources and a strong leadership structure through the black church and civil rights organizations like the SCLC, the NAACP, CORE, SNCC and even the black Panthers (I would remiss at this point if I did not recognize the passing of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth – a key and unsung hero of the Movement); it had charismatic leaders (e.g., Martin Luther King, A. Phillip Randolph, Ella Baker); and it was able to take advantage of a number of significant political opportunities (e.g., black voting power; general economic prosperity; shifting party politics, and international freedom movements).
To this point, flash mob politics is not a social movement. To be sure, increasing numbers of Americans are experiencing the type of anomie or social dislocation that is often present when social movements arise. However, for the flash mob model to become a social movement it must develop a clear core story of social change. And it has to be something more than generalized discontent or a hodgepodge of grievances. It has to put forward a value proposition outlining what is at stake; it has to identify what the target problem is; and it has to forward a set of actionable remedies. Resources, leadership, and strategy then follow. Then, and only then, is significant change possible.

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