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New Research on the Occupy Wall Street Movement

January 29, 2013

A new report funded by the Russell Sage Foundation offers an unprecedented analysis of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. Entitled "Changing the Subject: A Bottom-Up Account of Occupy Wall Street in New York City," the study draws on interviews with activists and a survey of more than 700 Occupy supporters at a May 1, 2012 rally. Here is the executive summary:

  • Highly educated young adults were overrepresented among OWS activists and supporters, a group with limited ethnic/racial or class diversity.
  • Many OWS activists and supporters were underemployed and/or had recently experienced layoffs or job loss; many were carrying substantial debt, especially those under 30. The issues our respondents cited in explaining their support for Occupy often reflected these personal experiences of economic hardship.
  • Most OWS activists and supporters were deeply skeptical of the mainstream political system as an effective vehicle for social change. For some, this skepticism intensified after the election of Barack Obama in 2008 failed to produce the changes they had been led to expect.
  • Despite being disillusioned with mainstream politics, many OWS activists and supporters remain politically active and civically engaged.
  • The occupation of Zuccotti Park had a pre-history, with strong links to previous U.S. social movements, as well as a post-history, with activities continuing long after the eviction of the Park.
  • OWS activists saw themselves as part of a global movement, linked to the Arab Spring and movements in Europe like that of the Spanish indignados, as well as to earlier protest movements in the United States.
  • The New York City OWS was consistently nonviolent, although this was the result of pragmatism rather than principle for many core activists.
  • OWS was committed to non-hierarchal “horizontalism.” This organizational form, as well as the structure of the occupation itself, were selfconsciously politically prefigurative.
  • OWS was able to attract supporters with a wide variety of specific concerns, many of whom had not worked together before, This was in large part because it made no formal “demands,” and united around the “We Are the 99%” slogan.
  • Occupy brought inequality into the mainstream of U.S. political debate, changing the national conversation.
  • OWS was organized mainly by politically experienced activists, but it also created new political subjects: young people with limited or no previous involvement in protest movements, who were transformed by their experiences and developed a commitment to working for social change.

You can read the full report, authored by Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penelope Lewis, here.