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OWS: A Case Study In Social Movements


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last fall, Occupy protests around the country caught the public imagination with a fresh style and hard questions about economic inequality. One by one, the camps were closed, but the rousted protesters vowed to return.

This past Tuesday, May Day, Occupy re-emerged with protests and marches in New York City, Oakland and other places but failed to ignite the same kind of spark. With plans for party conventions and other events still taking shape, it's way too early to write an obituary for Occupy, but some question whether a movement with no clear leadership and based on consensus can regain and sustain momentum.

Today, Occupy as a case study in social movements. Whether the cause is anti-abortion, the Tea Party, civil rights, anti-globalism, what makes some succeed? How do you evolve from an event to a movement?

If you've joined a social movement, did it meet your expectations? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the decisions forced by male pattern baldness, but first we begin with NPR correspondent Margot Adler, she joins us from our bureau in New York, and Margot, always nice to have you with us.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: It's always a pleasure to be back with you, Neal.

CONAN: And is it fair to say that Tuesday's events were less than organizers hoped?

ADLER: I don't know because it actually kind of mushroomed by the time at the end. At the end, it was probably, you know, 16 blocks long and street-wide, that huge march. So I think in New York - and New York was very different than a lot of other places. I had an email from somebody who actually refused to join Seattle because he heard there were a lot of breaking windows by anarchists.

But it was very theatrical, mostly peaceful with a few little skirmishes here and there and very - you know, it had all those old hallmarks of kind of creativity. I was just reading Todd Gitlin's book, and in the introduction, he says, he describes the movement as earnest, original, frivolous and mysterious.

And that was definitely what I felt watching the various events on May Day.

CONAN: Well, we'll get to Todd Gitlin and his new book in just a moment, but as you said, there was a big march in New York, but there was a call for a general strike.

ADLER: I think that kind of went away. You know what I mean? I think that was never going to be done because there hasn't been a real - I mean, here comes the real question. The real question is: Can you have a movement that is not a mass movement and doesn't really deal with issues like, you know, what is your relationship to politics, what is your relationship to the unions, what is your relationship - and Occupy basically has not had a clear definition of all that.

I think the most interesting thing about the winter - and again, another question it brings up, just to digress a minute, is how does the media cover a movement that is so decentralized? And one of the problems is that the movement looks a lot different from the inside than it does from the outside.

If you go on their website, there are 15 events taking place every day. There were all kinds of things happening during the winter. I spent a lot of time on the working groups, the alternative banking group and the Occupy bank group, and I went to spokes councils, and I went to general assemblies, some of which were pretty lame and a few of which weren't.

But I think it's very hard for that kind of a movement to be even seen by sort of the outside, which is used to a certain kind of structure and a certain way of dealing with a movement.

CONAN: Well, is commanding media attention part of a definition of success, or is, given our new world where people can communicate internally and freely on the Web, is that no longer a definition?

ADLER: I think it depends, and that's that weird inside-outside. From the inside of the movement, it seems vibrant, vital. It never left. It didn't disappear. We're still here. From the outside, when you're looking at the media as someone who's not been following it on the Internet, who's not been looking at the live stream, who's not been looking at all this other stuff, who isn't on Facebook or Twitter with it, it seems like it disappeared. And maybe that's a problem.

CONAN: Well, you mentioned Todd Gitlin. He joins us now from Columbia University in New York, where he teaches, and his book is called "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street." Nice to have you with us today.

TODD GITLIN: Likewise.

CONAN: And some have criticized the movement for structure or lack of it. What role does structure play?

GITLIN: Well, the structure is messy. Margot knows - Margot, our ace reporter, I have to add, has it exactly right. It's blurred. It fizzles. It gets back up. It is indecisive. It is very decisive at certain moments. And it's - you know, it's a different way of doing things. There's a kind of social invention here.

So I see it as a pragmatic movement with a lot of sticking points, but what I mean by pragmatic is that it's like a nonstop school. It - they try this, they try that. This looks good, this doesn't look good. Some people argue about it. Some people go off in their different directions.

I think it's still evolving in the way that movements do. They're like strange sort of blobby organisms, and you can't study them the way you study organizations or corporations or governments or for that matter any other kind of institution. It just is what it is, this odd, interesting sort of creature.

ADLER: Well, let me push in here with some - a little odd view. Carne Ross is a very interesting guy. He was Britain's Iraq specialist at the U.N. He left during the - over Blair's policy of the Iraq War. He has an independent company called Independent Diplomat. He ends up being this guy who is the facilitator of this Occupy bank group.

And he's had a huge, you know, experience of mediating in Bosnia, all over the place. And what he says about the leadership issue, he says on the one hand, what I've seen in Occupy is I've seen people becoming leaders in the most extraordinary way and using these tools to empower themselves and feel that they're part of a democratic movement in a way that I've never seen in any part of the world.

On the other hand, you can't make quick decisions when you're using consensus, and there are some problems. What do you think about that, Todd?

GITLIN: I think that's exactly right. Carne Ross is a very astute man. You can't make quick decisions, and you can't necessarily get the kind of debates that you need. What I mean about a real debate is not one where somebody pops up at a meeting and says this, and somebody pops up and says that, and you've got exchanges of soundbites. I mean a debate where people take on each other's arguments.

When I was going to direct action working groups, I observed that they had this kind of sort of pop-up spirit rather than a spirit of learning. But I think that - you know, that's only one side of it. And the other side is that people do learn.

For example, the - you know, some people wanted to do more disruptive actions and - on May Day, and the group in the Bay Area decided not to try to block the Golden Gate Bridge because somehow they were persuaded, maybe by the workers they were trying to support, that this would not be constructive.

And so, you know, so it goes. Other organizational forms may well come of this. They'll be more tightly organized networks, not everything will work by consensus. I mean, one thing about a movement with vague boundaries is that there are no membership cards, and so you're free to sort of take hold of it if you're in it and move it in this direction or that. So onward with evolution, I think is the story of the coming days.

CONAN: Well, using Occupy as a test case, what makes a movement succeed? How do you move from an event to a movement? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. If you joined a movement, were you disappointed? 800-989-8255. Sam(ph) is on the line from Lincoln in Massachusetts.

SAM: Yeah, hi, thanks for taking my call. I was very involved in the Vietnam anti-war movement, and I thought it was very successful. And I think one of the main reasons it was successful was there was a real resolve amongst the people there to do whatever it would take to, I guess in today's parlance you'd say change the conversation. And I think the anti-war movement was very successful in achieving that goal.

CONAN: And Todd Gitlin, even at the time, as politicians said no, no, no, we weren't paying attention, in all of their autobiographies and their memoirs, everyone said seeing a half a million people in the streets made a huge difference.

GITLIN: Yeah, it concentrated their minds. And, you know, all kinds of things were done in the anti-war movement. It was also sprawling. There was no central organization. It was what, you know, what I hope Occupy, I think it may well evolve into, a full-service movement. There was a place for a core of deeply committed nonstop activists. There was a place for people who would go to a demonstration every once in a while. There was a place for people who would avoid the draft. There was a place for people who would sign petitions. And there was a place for people who lobbied.

And eventually, you know, after the conspicuous, flamboyant stuff faded, for the most part, it was actually the lobbyists who got bills passed in Congress that cut off aid for the war and helped bring the war to a conclusion.

I think the Occupy movement needs to see itself as being in that spirit: ecumenical, multi-pronged, and see that as a strength and not as an unfortunate condition.

CONAN: Margot Adler, is there any sign of a movement in that direction?

ADLER: Well, I don't really know. You know, the movement that I like to compare Occupy to in a certain odd way is the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which on the one hand had a very - had one simple goal, which was to be able to organize on campus. But then it had a much broader and more difficult goal, which of course was never achieved, which was to sort of change the entire educational system to not be a knowledge factory, to not have sort of like the military-industrial complex the kind of knowledge complex. And that kind of a sort of broad-based, you know, non-easy goal I don't think ever really got very far.

And Occupy reminds me a lot of that. Even the rhetoric, you know, Mario Savio was, you know, there was a time when the - you know, when the machine makes you so sick at heart you can't take part, you can't even tacitly part. You have to put your body on the gears and the levers. Very, very similar to Occupy.

And the question is: Can large, systemic goals, which really are about changing the entire thing, can those be achieved in a society that's fairly centrist?

CONAN: And Todd Gitlin, just a few seconds left before a break, but you were describing a movement that became, in a sense, more focused and less about those bigger, bigger things and more focused on let's stop the war.

GITLIN: Well, the anti-war movement had a simple goal. The current movement is built on a big body of disgruntlement and dissatisfaction and indignation about the impunity with which oligarchs control our politics. It has a much bigger ambition, which is also a much vaguer ambition. But that's why I think you have to watch it in motion, and it needs to sort of come to grips with the enormity of what it actually aims to do. You can't snap your fingers and reverse decades of the growth of inequality and plutocratic rule.

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for the call. Social movements come and go. We're talking today about what makes them work or not, Occupy, the Tea Party, anti-globalism, civil rights, anti-abortion, anti-war, as we've mentioned. If you joined a movement, did it meet your expectations? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Occupy Wall Street re-emerged in the public eye this week. History tells us that building a cohesive, lasting social movement takes an important message, then time, effort, money, experience and in many cases luck.

We're talking today about what makes a movement succeed. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. If you joined a social movement, anti-abortion, the Tea Party, civil rights, anti-globalism, did it meet your expectations? I'm Neal Conan. You can also join our conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are NPR correspondent Margot Adler, who's been covering Occupy Wall Street; and Todd Gitlin, author of "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street." Let's go next to Matt, and Matt's with us from Nashua, New Hampshire. Matt, are you there? I think Matt has left us. Let's try John, John's with us from Denver.

JOHN: Yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead, John, you're on the air. John, are you there?

JOHN: I'm here.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: OK. Yeah, I think that the Occupy movement is lacking in a declaration and teeth. What I mean by that is I think somebody, and that may be me or anybody, needs to take a stab at putting together an actual declaration that articulates what the problems are, how they should be addressed, and use that declaration as a way for the people in the Occupy movement to have their own internal debates.

Beyond that, I think the teeth need to be something that is an actual threat that says if this declaration or if these demands are not met, this is what we're going to do, something along the lines of we're all going to withdraw out our savings account on this date at this time if these demands have not been addressed.

CONAN: All right, Margot Adler, a manifesto is one of those things that, well, it's been under debate since the start.

ADLER: Well, actually, they've come up - they do have - they do have a sort of a - somewhat of a manifesto. And actually there is - the group that I was reporting on, the Alternative Banking Group, is actually creating a Move Your Money iPhone app. But the problem is with this idea, I think, is that unless you have massive support, I think putting out an idea like that isn't going to get very far. What do you think, Todd?

GITLIN: Well, I think you need tangible victories. And you get - the movement has shown some with marches on foreclosed houses and marches disrupting foreclosure auctions and evictions and so on. You can deliver some concrete results. There are a number of the movements - Atlanta, Minneapolis, others - that have had good results.

You can even get - you can even inspire angry shareholders to vote down a pay package for the CEO of Citigroup, as happened a week or two ago. But I do agree with you and with the caller: The teeth come not from a threat, threats too easily turn out to be empty, but progress comes through the ability to develop political muscle and be an enforcement, you know, operation.

And that's how politics works. That's democratic politics. So, you know, what has to be thought out and rethought all the time is how do you enlarge the numbers of people who feel that this movement actually can deliver, not just that it's worthy, but that it calls upon them to do something moral, whether it's moving money or signing a petition or supporting a candidate or marching on Washington to get money out of politics.

I mean the ongoing debate - and I think that debate in the movement will only intensify, and it may well have fruitful results. We'll see.

CONAN: Joining us now from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona, is Donald Critchlow, author of, among other books, "The Conservative Ascendency: How the GOP Made Political History." Good to have you with us.

DONALD CRITCHLOW: Well, thank you very much, good to be here.

CONAN: And it's interesting, we were just talking about a movement that can develop some teeth, and a lot of people made analogies to the Tea Party, and, well, obviously very different in goals and outlook. Maybe the mad-as-hell component is about the same. The Tea Party, though, has had some definite teeth and has made a real effect in some Republican primaries, and you can - not everywhere, not all the time, but certainly some of the time.

CRITCHLOW: Yes, I think the - actually, the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street share something in common, which might not be readily apparent, and that is they're both protesting crony capitalism. I think the success of the Tea Party has come because they have a single goal.

They weren't looking for manifestos or declarations, and their single goal was to overturn Obamacare. And that was going to be picked up by the Republican Party and insurgents within the Republican Party.

I think the problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it doesn't have a clear agenda. On one hand, they want social transformation, and on the other hand, they're - it's not clear how they're going to play in the electoral arena. So I'm less optimistic about Occupy Wall Street than is Todd Gitlin.

CONAN: Do you see any similarities between Occupy and other social movements?

CRITCHLOW: If I were - I think the free speech movement in Berkley was a very good analogy by Margot. They had a single goal too, in the beginning, and that was to be allowed to have free speech on campus and set up tables. I think the anti-war movement is similar in that you had a single goal, and that was to end the war in Vietnam. It became an umbrella that brought in disparate groups, from those who wanted to fight imperialism and racism, those who want to - who called for victory for the North Vietnamese through the National Liberation Front.

But in the end what brought the groups together was a single goal, and that was to end the war. So it's not clear to me what the single message of Occupy Wall Street is, and perhaps Margot and Todd have something to say about this.

ADLER: Well, I would say that certainly there is a single goal in the sense that there is a push to have a less unequal society. I think that's pretty, you know, far and wide the main goal of Occupy Wall Street. I think what would be - I'd love to know from you whether the whole question of - we have two movements, Tea Party and Occupy, and actually a few people, like the Ron Paul people, are in both.

But the thing that's interesting is that the polls on both of these movements were totally positive, almost, in the beginning, and both, in both cases the polls have gone way, way, way down in support, which I find very interesting and striking and have been trying to figure out exactly what's going on, except for, of course, changes in media coverage.


GITLIN: Well, it's interesting to me - oh, sorry.

CONAN: I think that question was to Donald Critchlow, but...

ADLER: Yes, it was.

GITLIN: Ah, sorry.

CRITCHLOW: Well, I think the Tea Party polls have dropped in some sense because of their failure for their candidates. And I think a lot of people who were initially supporting the Tea Party movement wanted to put pressure on the Republican Party to take a stronger, what they saw as a stronger stance on Obamacare and a range of other issues.

So I think that is part - partly explains the decline. But on the other hand, I think the Tea Party has been quite successful in pushing the Republicans to the right, as seen as the recent primaries. I think you could speak better about the decline in polls of Occupy Wall Street, but I think in the end a lot of Americans just didn't see the point of what they were seeking, other than trying to end inequality in America, which is, you know, a great goal, but actually how are you going to, in a pragmatic way, fulfill that goal.

We understand the tactics of pulling teeth, as your earlier caller said, by withdrawing money, but how is that in the end going to redistribute wealth?

CONAN: Todd Gitlin?

GITLIN: Well, I think, you know, the question you're asking is a question people within Occupy ask, and some of the answers that circulate have to do with trying - with mobilizing to get passed a constitutional amendment that would drive money out of politics. And I'm not suggesting that's an easy task. I'm not suggesting it's easy to formulate, let alone to actually get mileage on.

But it is a conceivable direction in which to go. They're - you know, one of the more obscure but fascinating signs that's been cropping up for months in Occupy encampments is restore Glass-Steagall, referring to the New Deal act that separated commercial banking from investment banking, so that the banks couldn't gamble with all the money that they get from deposits.

And that's not an unimaginable task. I mean, the Glass-Steagall Act was only undermined, defeated in the year - in the late '90s so...

CONAN: It's unimaginable in a Republican-controlled Congress.

GITLIN: Oh, that's for sure.


ADLER: Well, it's easier than getting a constitutional amendment. But one...

CONAN: I'm not going to argue with that.


ADLER: But one of the funny things is as I was going down - covering (unintelligible) with a guy who writes about the Constitution. And we were just - he was just asking random people on the street if you could have a constitutional amendment - these are all Occupy people walking down the street - what would you do? And what was really interesting was almost half the people who answered this was corporations are not people, corporations are not people over and over again. But, of course, getting that one is much harder than restoring...


ADLER: ...Glass-Steagall.

CONAN: Here's an email from Mack(ph) in Florida: I participated at the start in October of 2011 to Occupy in D.C. I backed off over time because they never evolved beyond street theater, banging drums and yelling at the universe, all of which accomplish nothing. Had they studied Gene Sharp's writings on effective nonviolent civil disobedience, Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, where Arab Spring leaders trained, they would have been more effective? It's a waste of time now. Todd Gitlin, I assume you're familiar with Gene Sharp. Could Occupy have benefited?

GITLIN: Well, for sure. And there are people who have been arguing on behalf of his line of argument. And I've been at meetings where people bring him up or - and read his stuff. And, you know, I think, again, not to sound too giddy about it, but there's a learning process here. People come in. They sample it, like the caller - or the writer. They try this. They observe that it's good at this and not good at that. And they fall away. And then the question is do - does other leadership arise from people who've fallen away from the drumbeaters and who want to do something else?

And, you know, again, you know, among the forces we've heard from in the last few months are the big membership organizations like MoveOn, which claims six million members, and unions and all kinds of professional groups and so on who have a lot at stake in these debates. They're not the people in the encampments, but they're people who share the general rubric, the general goal of getting money out of politics. And partly, we're waiting to see how they step up, but they've been training...

ADLER: But - and how...

GITLIN: ...nonviolent organizers this last month and did very well with that.

ADLER: But how Occupy relates to them too because...

GITLIN: Well...

ADLER: ...I was at a big conference call...


ADLER: ...with all those organizations, and they said we've adopted the 99 percent meme. And then when questions came to the press, they said - I said, well, where are the Occupy people? And they said, oh, well, we are very supportive. But Occupy - some of the people in Occupy think it's all cooptation.


ADLER: Some of them think it's real. And how do you actually get that to work?

CONAN: Our guests are...

GITLIN: I think the way you get it to work is by actually going ahead with the project and then seeing which Occupy people will support it.

CONAN: We're talking with Todd Gitlin - you just heard - chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, author of "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and Promise of Occupy Wall Street." Also with us Donald Critchlow, professor of history at Arizona State University, and Margot Adler, NPR's correspondent based in New York who's been covering Occupy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this email from Mark(ph) in Georgesville, Idaho: Neal, please make sure you talk about money, and one area of interest is the massive money and resources provided to the Tea Party by the very wealthy. Donald Critchlow, that's at least in part accurate. But is that a sign of weakness or a sign of strength?

CRITCHLOW: Well, I think there was money put into the organizing efforts, but I also think the - it was largely a grassroots movement. And in some ways, it wasn't - and the movement was organized within the states, and it has a wide range of leaders. Even within states, there are differences. And I think in the end, the great success of the Tea Party movement was the focus on ending Obamacare, but it was also - and it influenced the Republicans...

CONAN: Entirely in primaries...

CRITCHLOW: ...primaries.

CONAN: ...with the Republican Party, yes.

CRITCHLOW: But if I may, you know, again, I want to come back to this problem of Occupy Wall Street, and it reminds me much of Students for a Democratic Society, which also had - also wanted large social transformation and had a precarious or delicate relationship with the Democratic Party. So it wasn't clear whether it was going to try to influence politics on - through the - through street protests or whether it was going to influence politics electorally. And in the meanwhile, they kept debating what the manifesto, the proper manifesto or agenda should be. So I'll let Todd speak to that, if he will.

GITLIN: Well, I basically share your appraisal of it. I think if we can imagine the '60s without the crazy escalation of the Vietnam War, we would have seen an evolution toward a more productive relationship between the radical liberal alliance, which was SDS, and the Democratic Party which was partly old, partly new, partly reformist, partly stuck. And so with certain, you know, movements can't control the environment in which they're functioning. And I think there was no way to hold together an alliance between a radical SDS anti-war-based movement and Lyndon Johnson with his war commitment, as Johnson himself came to understand, tragically too late.

But I think that, you know, the analogy is reasonable. And these are tensions that run through social movements. You know, there was a huge split in the abolitionist movement when the Republican Party started as an anti-slavery party. And then there were people who charged cooptation, sellout and so on when some of the abolitionists supported the Republicans. I think it's just built in. Movements include jostling forces of insiders and outsiders, people banging on the door from outside and people scheming and insinuating and organizing coalition-building on the inside. And, you know, it's - these are unfolding stories. These are not conclusive moments.

CONAN: Margot, just a few seconds left, but what do you look for next to see whether this movement is as vibrant as it believes it is?

ADLER: Well, I think it has to come to some conclusions. I mean, I think it could be - is it going to deal with the election? Probably not. But it's sort of that's kind of weird. What is it going to do? What is it going to do about the conventions? Is it going to have huge protests at the conventions? I think we're going to see - how much is it going to be creative and original and mysterious, as Todd put it? Is that going to continue, or are we going to see, you know, a few obvious goals? I don't think we know.

CONAN: Margot, thanks very much. We'll continue the conversation I'm sure. Todd Gitlin, thanks very much for your time today.

GITLIN: My pleasure. Thanks a lot for having me.

CONAN: Todd Gitlin's book "Occupy Nation: The Roots, Spirit and Promise of Occupy Wall Street." Donald Critchlow, thank you for your time today.

CRITCHLOW: Well, thank you for letting me join the conversation.

CONAN: Donald Critchlow, a professor of history at Arizona State University. Coming up, cut out the comb-over, toss the toupee. What do you about male-pattern baldness? Stay with us. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.