by Ted Rall
It was the middle of September. An ad-hoc coalition of political groups, mostly left of center but not all, whose members mostly were young but not all, came together to express their opinions outside the officially approved two-party paradigm.
United by their anger and energy, these people held general assemblies. They marched. Throughout that fall and into part of the following year, they caught the attention of the news media and inspired activists around the country.
The cops were sent in. Beaten and swept away in mass arrests, the young activists drifted away. Voters, convinced by the system’s propaganda that the movement threatened law and order, turned to the right. One year later, it was clear to most that the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley had failed.
Students had demanded that school administrators allow political organizations, including civil rights groups, to table and solicit contributions on campus. (In 1964, only the campus Democratic and Republican clubs were allowed to do so.) There was a concession: the acting chancellor grudgingly opened the steps of a single building for open discussion and tables, but only during certain hours. By the fall of 1966, however, UC had a new right-wing president and California was led by a new right-wing governor, Ronald Reagan, who had promised to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.”
Now we understand that the movement was a prequel to a beginning. It morphed into a campus movement that inspired widespread social unrest of the 1960s that centered on opposition to the Vietnam War. Everything that followed—feminists burning bras, gays rioting after the bust at the Stonewall Inn, America’s withdrawal from Vietnam—had its roots in that “failed” movement.
Similarly, one year after activists set up the first Occupy Wall Street encampments in New York and Washington, D.C., the Occupy movement is described as in “disarray.” Indeed, it’s hard to remember how big Occupy was at its height. Were there really more than a thousand Occupations? Did 59% of the American public support OWS when it was barely a month old? What happened?
“I think they’re idiots. They have no agenda,” Robert Nicholson, who works on Wall Street, told The Los Angeles Times. “They have yet to come out with a policy statement.”
“The movement [grew] too large too quickly. Without leaders or specific demands, what started as a protest against income inequality turned into an amorphous protest against everything wrong with the world,” argues the AP.
I was at Freedom Plaza in Washington and Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. I’m a member of my local Occupy chapter on Long Island, Occupy the East End. (Yes, we’re still around.) I agree with Mikell Kober of Brooklyn, who was protesting in front of a Bank of America branch. She told a reporter that OWS is “about creating a public space where people could gather and have a conversation about the things that need to change.”
Coming up with a list of demands isn’t the point. Thinking outside the D vs. R box is. People know that electoral politics is theater. Real politics is in the streets. For the first time since the 1960s, we know that.
Although the physical presence of the Occupy movement is a mere shadow of its presence a year ago, its idea remains colossally important—largely because the two major parties still refuse to engage the biggest problem we face: America’s growing poverty.
Like the Free Speech movement nearly a half century ago, Occupy is the prequel to the beginning.
Ted Rall is a columnist, cartoonist, author and independent war journalist. He is the winner of numerous awards and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His new book is The Book of Obama: How We Got From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.