Occupy Wall Street Struggles for Survival
Life + Money

Occupy Wall Street Struggles for Survival

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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.

RELATED: The Biggest Threat to the Occupy Wall Street Protest

"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.

Last month, following credible but unremarkable attendance at national May Day rallies and NATO protests in Chicago, about 200 Occupiers gathered in New York's Union Square to plan a fall re-emergence: a "Yes We Camp" rally on September 17 to underscore the right of activists to occupy public space, like parks and sidewalks.

Last October, lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park hummed with energy, a loose collective of aggrieved Americans united by shared outrage at a spectrum of economic injustices. The spectacle of "horizontal democracy," drum circles, and a revitalized American counterculture captured everyone's attention. More than 12,000 newspaper stories a month referenced the movement, according to two university sociologists, Patrick Rafail and Jackie Smith. The two most popular Twitter hash tags, #occupy and #OWS, hit cyberspace at an average rate of 20 to 60 times a minute, according to SocialFlow, which analyzed OWS Twitter trends for Reuters.

The frenzy peaked after police arrested hundreds of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1. That night, more than 1,500 of just those two tags went pinballing through the Twittersphere every minute.

A Time Magazine poll in October found 54 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of Occupy Wall Street, while 86 percent believed Wall Street itself and lobbyists had too much influence in Washington. By November 2, OWS New York raised more than $500,000 in donations, and by year-end, nearly three quarters of a million dollars.

Public support for OWS spiked briefly following a November 15, pre-dawn New York City Police Department raid that cleared Zuccotti Park and three days later when images of University of California campus police pepper-spraying seated protesters went viral.

But the New York eviction robbed the landmark camp of a central location, and most protesters simply returned to their lives. The core of the movement disappeared from public consciousness. A seemingly natural alliance with the nation's politically active labor unions has been hindered by Occupy's general lack of interest in electoral politics, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, author of several books on labor union organizing.

Public support soured through the quiet winter months of early 2012. When protesters returned to Zuccotti Park on March 17 for the movement's six-month anniversary and threatened to re-occupy the park, police moved in swiftly, arresting dozens more.

In April, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 71 percent of respondents said they did not support OWS. News story citations have dropped below 1,000 a month as of May, according to Smith and Rafail. Related Twitter traffic has slowed to about five tweets a minute, according to SocialFlow. In significant numbers, #Occupy and #ows are being co-opted by an Oregon wildlife campaign and Connect the Left, a liberal umbrella group. OWS New York's general fund is down to $31,000 and its bail fund to about $50,000, said Christine Crowther of the OWS NY finance committee. Almost all of the 300 or more camps that sprung up around the nation have been disbanded, according to Arun Gupta, co-founder of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, the movement's newspaper of occasional record.

"In many cities, most prominently New York, the general assemblies have disintegrated, because the democratic practice becomes a floating abstraction without the space to anchor it," he wrote recently on Aljazeera.com.

While the movement has splintered into small, self-sustaining cells that focus on individual issues at the local level and coordinate where necessary with the other "working groups," a national structure is in place. Different Occupy chapters connect through group conference calls and constant online activity.

Washington political consultants say they have no serious Occupy-backed or inspired candidates on their radar for this fall's elections, and many Occupy activists say elections are not a priority. "As a community that works with consensus with a 90 percent threshold, we'd never be able to build consensus around a single candidate, ever," said Justin Stone. The New York activist still participates weekly in "sleepful protests" in the city – essentially camping on the sidewalk.

(Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Thomas Ferraro)