did the occupy movement reject the civil rights movement?

On an ideological level, the Civil Rights Movement and Occupy are clearly fellow travelers. They both are openly anti-racist and anti-inequality. However, there is an important sense in which the Occupy movement is an obvious rejection of the CRM: tactics and organization.

Roughly speaking, the CRM deployed “big organizations” in the pursuit of a clearly defined mission. The organizations were Black churches, political groups (e.g., the NAACP), and various labor and student groups. While there was no single leader, the CRM clearly has a leadership class that set the agenda and worked in a fairly top-down manner. It was also highly bureaucratic in that that they set a vast apparatus (the SCLC) to collect funds, conduct litigation, and distribute resources.

In contrast Occupy works on an explicitly decentralized plan. The movement strives to have a horizontal structure and leadership, in the traditional sense, is discouraged. There is no analog to the NAACP or CORE. It also has a very vague set of goals, at least in comparison to the CRM’s demands for voting rights and equality in housing and education. And they openly reject institutionalized politics, rather than engage in the way the CRM did with voting drives and occasional electioneering. Perhaps the only major overlap between Occupy and the CRM is the use of non-violence.

The split between Occupy and the CRM raises an important question: why is the most celebrated progressive movement of the present one that so obviously rejects the successful strategies of the past? Maybe it has to do with the collective memory of the CRM, where the typical Occupier sees the CRM as a failure in some way. Maybe it’s historical amnesia, an ignorance of progressive history. Or perhaps the goals of Occupy in some way are completely incompatible with the tactical and organizational innovations of 20th century left politics. It’s a questions that merits an answer.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 22, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

10 Responses

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  1. I think it reflects growing distrust of institutions more generally and party politics specifically.



    October 22, 2013 at 12:23 am

  2. I think you may have a point, although my guess is that many Occupiers simply misunderstand CRM tactics and how the movement benefited from some kind of hierarchical organization in addition to its less centralized, nonhierachical organizational forms. Which brings up another point: wouldnt Ella Baker and SNCC qualify as a relatively decentralized wing of the CRM?


    soft scientist

    October 22, 2013 at 12:31 am

  3. I think it reflects the rise in individualism among American liberals, which causes fewer of them to be willing to dedicate themselves to a cause that is led by someone else. There’s a paper by Stern et al (2013) called the Liberal Illusion of Uniqueness, that’s specifically about the contrast between OWS and the Tea Party. Here is the abstract:

    In two studies we demonstrate that liberals underestimate their similarity to other liberals
    (i.e., display truly false uniqueness), whereas moderates and conservatives overestimate their
    similarity to other moderates and conservatives (i.e., display truly false consensus; Studies 1 and
    2). We further demonstrate that a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives in
    the motivation to feel unique explains this ideological distinction in the accuracy of estimating
    similarity (Study 2). Implications of the accuracy of consensus estimates for mobilizing liberal
    and conservative political movements are discussed.


    Chris M

    October 22, 2013 at 1:53 am

  4. I’ve wondered about this as well. I was following the Gezi park protests in Turkey for a while, and it seemed to share a lot in common with the OWS in terms of diffusion of goals and rejection of explicit hierarchies. If I had to guess, I think* it has something to do with the means of communication. I’m not sure CRM orgs could have run as tight a ship if the entire membership could attract the attention of everyone else’s ears and eyes at all times. Ironically, I don’t this helps SMO’s today… It’s almost as if today’s tools of communication help iSMO’s get off the ground quicker, but ultimately stifle their success.

    *just a hunch, not staking a hard claim here.



    October 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm

  5. My serious response is that Fabio might be focusing on the wrong comparison. Occupy can be rejecting the hierarchical structures of older movements that fought for economic equality—unions and “old-left” socialist parties. Many of the young OWS protesters have only seen the decline of these more bureaucratic organizations. My flippant response is that protesters could be reading Frances Fox-Piven as well (see her occupy impressions as well as essays by Gamson and Flacks in the special edition on Occupy in the Spring edition of Sociological Quarterly).


    Eric s

    October 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

  6. i agree with KenKolb – I think technology allowed for a different approach, whereas it was not possible in the past. I also don’t think that the ethos of the decentralized approach was a rejection of the CRM approach – i think it was a very extreme rejection of big business and bureaucratic organization.


    Trish R

    October 22, 2013 at 3:25 pm

  7. I guess pretty much everyone is against racism these days, but I was unaware it was a significant focus of OWS.


    Wonks Anonymous

    October 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm

  8. I’m a big fan of Gary Alan Fine’s “Problem Chaining” article/address in Social Problems, which argues that the second red scare effectively destroyed CP party discipline over the broader left of the sort seen in the popular front and this in turn led to the freelance craziness of the late 60s/early 70s.



    October 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm

  9. What about the Crits – don’t they deserve some of the blame for trashing the CRM all these years? Critical Legal Theory and Critical Race Theory arose in law schools in the 80s in response to the failure of the Civil Rights Movement in the face of the New Right. Similarly, critical theory in its various forms in the humanities – post-structuralism, queer theory, etc. – all denounced the “identity politics” model that was the hallmark of the CRM.

    In fact, Thomas Frank argued recently in the Baffler that he realized Occupy was doomed when Judith Butler and Zizek were allowed to address the Assembly but John Lewis and other civil rights leaders were not ( I thought he made a great point about the pernicious effects of academic theory on social movements but the neo-marxists grad students at Jacobin were not amused (

    Anyone want to defend the Crits?



    October 28, 2013 at 2:23 am

  10. My sense is that it was a strategic mistake to reject building formal organizational structures for the movement. It is not that there were no structures but that the existing tribes were never brought together under one coordinated umbrella. My sense is that there was a significant anti SMO sentiment due to fear of ending up with unacceptable (potentially anti-democratic) hierarchies, leadership models, and other forms of cooptation…purity vs getting down and dirty in politics (cf. Tea Party–though I’m not big on the overall TP v OWS comparison)…it’s not that they did not care for the CRM but that it was, perhaps, misunderstood…



    October 28, 2013 at 12:07 pm

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