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Sizing up the Occupy movement

Occupy Wall Street protesters outside the New York Stock Exchange last month.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

In New York's Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, 2011, a group of activists triggered the Occupy Wall Street movement, seizing along with the park in lower Manhattan a growing national spotlight around issues of economic inequality. Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage," knows firsthand about political movements, having been president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the early 1960s, helping organize some of the first demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam. Gitlin's insightful, eye-opening, and quite sympathetic account of the Occupy movement begins with its intellectual roots, then moves to its organizational structure, and finally describes the evolution of its tactics after September 2011 and beyond.

Gitlin traces the arc of the media and public response to the movement, from utter indifference (and outright hostility) at the beginning, to growing sympathy as police efforts to oust the Occupations led to complaints of police brutality, to the complex mixture of admiration, hostility, and indifference that pervades today. Gitlin begins by describing a growing level of frustration on the left with President Obama, quoting one OWS activist who said, "[t]his is the Obama generation declaring its independence from his administration. We thought his voice was ours. Now we know we have to speak for ourselves."


And speak they would, creating a months-long national conversation around issues of economic and political inequality. Far from having no agenda, as many pundits claimed, OWS set out "to resist the grotesque inequalities that have become normal in American life," writes Gitlin, and to castigate those who "had rigged the game" in their favor.

Gitlin does much more than just explore OWS's anti-plutocracy agenda. He delves into its participatory, leaderless organizational structure, its inclusive decision-making processes, its nonviolent protest tactics, and its goals going forward into the 2012 election season. Gitlin also provides historical perspective, comparing the tensions within OWS to those within other protest movements he's known intimately, such as the civil rights movement's split between pacifists like Martin Luther King and militants like Malcolm X and (later) the Black Panthers.


Gitlin also discusses OWS's refusal to get involved in the political system, which it deems contaminated by moneyed interests: "Occupy does not want to be mainstream," Gitlin writes, It's "an outsider movement, deeply committed to a radical departure from political norms." Gitlin describes widespread fears by OWS activists that the movement's message could be co-opted (and thus trivialized) by President Obama, who may be governing like an inside-the-Beltway accommodationist but who's happy to campaign as a grass-roots populist carrying the banner of the 99 percent. Gitlin explains that the anti-establishment, anti-hierarchy nature of the movement runs deep: writing that Democratic leaders visiting Zuccotti Park, like US Representatives John Lewis and Chuck Rangel, "were shooed away from general assemblies when they attempted to speak without waiting to take their turns."

Gitlin believes that the most enduring characteristic of OWS may yet be its do-it-yourself ethos that rejects traditional, top-down organizational structures for a more participatory style. Gitlin also asserts that OWS has helped confirm the power of nonviolence, as police crackdowns on Occupiers heightened public sympathy for the movement. Video of a police officer pepper-spraying unarmed, sitting Occupiers at the University of California at Davis, for example, was shared via social media and went viral: "Violence made for powerful images," writes Gitlin, "but so did the Davis students sitting," helping Occupiers "claim and hold the high moral ground."


Anyone seeking to understand OWS at a deep level needs to read Todd Gitlin's "Occupy Nation." With economic inequality only growing, and big money continuing to shape our political future in a post-"Citizens United" world, the agenda of OWS will remain relevant to millions of disaffected Americans.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can
be reached at chuckleddy@