Sustaining the Occupy Movement

Kitchen at Occupy

Occupy's attention to feeding the hungry and housing the homeless has demonstrated a new, interdependent way of life. Here, protesters line up for free food at Occupy Boston. Credit: Robert Kendall.

In the fall of 2011, as the Occupy movement spread around the nation and beyond, fundamental systemic change suddenly seemed possible. The movement tapped into tremendous pain and stirred up hidden longings. Its slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” caught fire in the U.S. conversation landscape. Talking about the gap between the rich and the poor and even questioning capitalism are no longer taboo.

The movement has also generated enormous controversy, however, and its support seems to be declining. Some are beginning to doubt whether a popular, mass movement can still emerge, now that so many encampments have been dismantled.

Although I still see hope that the Occupy movement could live out its riveting promise, the questions it faces are daunting: How can the movement attract masses of people while preserving the essential founding focus on transforming economic realities? What can appeal to large numbers of people across political, racial, and class divides so that we can create the necessary change to match today’s crises?

I don’t claim to hold all the answers. What I most love about the Occupy movement is the utter inability of any of us to decide, control, or even predict its unfolding. But I would still like to highlight two aspects of the movement that, if cultivated, could contribute to creating a vibrant mass movement: the infusion of empathy into connections formed across differences and the emphasis on meeting basic human needs.

Sustaining the Movement Through Empathy

The Occupy movement has been a grand experiment with radical forms of democracy, making things happen despite the challenges of getting hundreds of people to agree without any formal leadership. The movement has also alienated those who cannot stand the endless meetings, the acrimonious debates, and the negative attitudes toward leadership.

It has brought together people who don’t commonly interact, with more visible diversity than is common and novel ways of relating. But the movement hasn’t created enough tools and structures for individuals to shift out of the social isolation and alienation that are pervasive in U.S. life. As a result, the destruction of the encampments turned a group of passionate activists and community builders into a collection of individuals coming together only for meetings that to many no longer seem relevant.

One way of sustaining this movement is to think strategically about how to support the people who are putting their life energy and resources into the daily tasks of maintaining the momentum of the actions that started in September. In the face of police brutality, internal strife, and declining support, those working on the ground are clearly in need of emotional, spiritual, and strategic resources. Even as it has offered food and shelter to many, the movement has also been the occasion for immense conflict, including sexual assaults. Even active supporters have been uncomfortable or afraid to participate. Those of us who want to support the movement could do much to increase the chances that the movement will be inviting to newcomers and remain sustainable for those activists who have been working on it from the start.

We can help the movement align its inner workings with its outer message. When the means align with the ends, when inner transformation follows along with social change, and when we create, now, the relationships and institutions we want to see in the future, movements become more attractive and compelling to large numbers of people. ...

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Miki Kashtan, certified NVC trainer ( and cofounder of Bay Area NVC (, teaches and works with organizations, visionary leaders, activists, and others to support the transition to a world that works for all.

Source Citation

Kashtan, Miki. 2012. "Sustaining the Occupy Movement." Tikkun 27(2): 26.

tags: Activism, Nonviolent Activism, Politics & Society   
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