More than eight months after Occupy Wall Street burst onto the global stage, decrying income inequality and coining the phrase "We are the 99 percent," the movement's survival and continued relevance is far from assured. Donations to the flagship New York chapter have slowed to a trickle. Polls show that public support is rapidly waning. Media attention has dropped precipitously.
Bursts of violence, threats of municipal chaos and two alleged domestic terror plots have put Occupy on a recurring collision course with law enforcement. Even its social media popularity, a key indicator of the strength of a youthful movement, has fizzled since its zenith last fall. National electoral successes – the legacy of the Tea Party, the other major American grassroots movement created in recent years – are not even on the agenda of the famously leaderless organization.
While the movement's signature triumph has been to draw worldwide attention to income inequality in the U.S. and elsewhere, some who are sympathetic say it has nevertheless failed a crucial test of social movements: the ability to adapt and grow through changing tactics.
"Most of the social scientists who are at all like me, unsentimental leftists, think this movement is over," said Harvard University professor Theda Skocpol, a liberal academic who wrote a book on the Tea Party. She and others wonder whether Occupy will ever really thrive without solid footing in the mainstream of American political discourse.
Bill Dobbs of Occupy's New York's press team takes a different view. He compares the OWS struggle to that of America's civil rights movement – long and uphill, with broad goals to radically alter American society. The first step, he said, has been to re-animate America's long-dormant spirit of social activism.
"We in America have allowed ourselves to be put into a political coma," Dobbs told Reuters. "Occupy Wall Street has shaken the country out of that coma." But are sporadic protests enough to change the nation?
Skocpol identified what she said are several key differences between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. She said Tea Party activists are generally 45 and older, with many in their 60s; they moved swiftly from organizing rallies to participating in local and national electoral politics, and established local chapters, each with its own leader. By contrast, the Occupy movement is populated by mostly younger activists who eschew traditional politics and have resisted top-down organization. Instead, she said, they focused on encampments, which left them vulnerable to dissolution after they were evicted from their tent cities.
Headlines about a plot to blow up a bridge in Cleveland during last month's May Day demonstrations and another to attack President Barack Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters with Molotov cocktails during the recent NATO summit drew crucial media oxygen away from the peaceful activities of the movement's large majority.
"Eight months in, the Tea Party were beginning to impact primary elections, and by the second year were having a tremendous impact," Skocpol said. "They were, if not electing, then at least changing the kind of candidates that were being elected. But Occupy got bogged down in tent cities. In social movement literature we'd argue that there was a failure to engage in tactical innovation at a crucial time."
Certainly the movement shows few signs of creating a summer of discontent in American cities this year. Its next big gathering is scheduled for Philadelphia, the week of July 4. Organizers say the group will camp out for four days in the "streets and parks of Philadelphia ... as a collective exercise of our free speech" and conduct workshops and panels.