Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement.
Last year’s “U.S. Day of Rage” kicked off protests against corporatism and corruption — two major societal ills that persist today. Inspired by pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa, more than 1 million people across the United States and dozens of other countries have participated to date. The movement was massive, direct democracy action that has not been seen in the United States in years.
But as it currently exists, the Occupy movement has failed.
When the protests began last year, they attracted a large, diverse group of people — college students, blue collar workers, ex-Wall Street employees and people from varying age groups and educational backgrounds. The idea was simple: People come together to focus on the issues that go beyond basic partisan divides — namely financial corruption. Protesters were angry at government bailouts for banks, rising student debt, the Citizens United ruling (the landmark Supreme Court case that allows corporations and unions to spend freely on political campaigns) and a stimulus bill that didn’t go far enough.
Occupations were met with mass arrests, violent evictions and media blackouts. Aside from this suppression, winter’s arrival meant many protesters leaving the outdoor camps. The combination of these factors left more moderate voices outside Occupy and allowed the much more radical anarchist and socialist views to dominate the movement.
Occupy lost momentum because the protesters could not alter their strategy.
Instead of keeping its focus on the big picture, Occupy slid into narrow issues, such as protesting local police actions. And instead of being inclusive, the different occupations seemed wary of attracting new supporters.
Yet, a year later, Occupy’s message remains true. In fact, everything the movement stands for is even more important now than it was in 2011.
Income disparity continues to plague not only the United States, but the entire world. This summer’s news that banks across the world manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate — also known as LIBOR, the rate banks are charged for borrowing from each other — shows that corruption in the financial world continues. Conservative candidates call for cutting the budget and lowering taxes — a foolish talking point considering the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Bank bailouts helped keep the economy from free falling, but executives behind risky and corrupt policies remain unpunished.
In other words, the Occupy movement failed to change the systems it criticized. But there is a way, right now, for Occupy to have a more significant impact: voting.
As more radical groups gained prominence inside Occupy, there were calls to disassociate from the current political environment and create something new. The chances of replacing the current government in the United States and the value of doing so are astronomically low. But reforming and altering the system? That’s possible, and it is accomplished through participating in that very system.
Occupy did manage to change some of the conversations in American politics. Wealth inequality and student debt are being discussed in the presidential campaign and in Congress. President Barack Obama is a big supporter of the so-called “Buffett rule,” a tax on wealthier Americans that would fund government programs to help those who are less fortunate. And Obama recently said he wants a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling.
Occupy has the power to direct political discourse and raise issues to the public. So why isn’t it? It’s a major election year and many people say they will not vote. Occupiers, instead of staying in encampments, should be spreading out and going door to door, encouraging people to participate in November to bring to light some of the problems facing the country. This year’s Occupy movement should be “Occupy the electoral system.”
The Occupy movement has a chance to challenge powerful interests in the country, but it is at a crossroads. It can maintain its current strategy of criticizing narrowly without looking at the big picture, or it can reach out, be more proactive and take advantage of election season to win back some of the diverse support it had when it started.
Nicholas Slayton is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism.