“You can’t evict an idea!”
That’s what many Occupy protesters across the country shouted during the police incursions that cleared city squares and streets of their encampments. And it's holding true.
Two years after Occupy Wall Street laid camp at Zuccotti Park, the sleeping bags and bullhorns are long gone. But political activists are still holding up the tent poles of the movement that inspired protests around the world.
In New York on Thursday, student debt and financial issues in politics were at the heart of a panel moderated by author and social critic Naomi Wolf. The discussion followed a screening of 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film.
The movie dug up clips of cable news anchors all but rolling their eyes at the Occupy movement, which was often painted as extreme and radical.
But what the movement seeks to preserve is fundamental to the American Dream, activists said.
“What was the mainstream is not available to the mainstream anymore, and we want that back,” said Iris Maria Chavez, an assistant field director with the Education Trust.
Improving lives with education, home ownership and jobs are all themes that have been central to the Occupy movement, because the movement cares about social mobility, Chavez said.
Pam Brown, of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, said the movement was “about resisting the social relationships that we have under capitalism,” yet resisted defining it further, saying the movement is anti-capitalist but still developing globally.
Brown also told the audience that “corporatized media” has frequently failed to tell Occupy’s story, but Wolf countered that Occupy’s lack of a strong leadership stymied coverage when she would try to help the movement get the attention of mainstream news outlets.
“I’ve spent much of my career talking about women’s issues, social justice, rape, poverty, disempowerment, empowerment, in the mainstream media, and it’s not impossible. It’s not the ideal world, but you have to meet people where they are,” said Wolf.
University of Denver Associate Professor Erica Chenoweth has studied more than 100 major nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, and has found some common factors that contribute to success.
The average nonviolent campaign takes about three years to take hold.
Though protesters might beg to differ about the nature of current American democracy, Chenoweth notes the biggest difference between many of the successful protest movements and the Occupy movement is that the most successful ones take hold to unseat dictatorial regimes.
“The paradox is that it’s actually quite difficult to sustain a nonviolent movement in a democracy,” said Chenoweth.
One of the things that Occupy was often criticized for was the diversity of its goals; the movement seemed to take on different issues and interests in every different place it took hold.
But diversity is actually helpful to major movements. Chenoweth notes that there are two general principles that seem to guide successful social movements: They have to be big, and they have to be diverse.
“Occupy will always have this stigma associated with it that it’s a radical movement, but perceived radical movements are very easy to ignore and push aside,” Chenoweth said.
When fringe movements begin to work themselves into the mainstream and collect different factions into a common forum of dissent, that’s when they are able to succeed, Chenoweth said.
Part of helping Occupy’s legacy succeed lies in helping disparate Americans understand that they are united on some issues, across political parties and ideologies, Represent.Us Director Josh Silver said at the film screening.
About 85 percent of Americans, regardless of their politics, support strong campaign finance reform, Silver said, but messaging needs to improve so everyone can get behind ending corruption without being hindered by partisan politics.
Silver’s group is backing the American Anti-Corruption Act to get money out of politics working to stop the influence of special interest groups, who have been spending wildly in Washington since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
“We have to understand our job is to try and set the table,” Silver said. “The ideas that are laying around are robust, comprehensive and real.”