#OWS: Have We Entered the Age of Protest? - Miller-McCune
The Occupy Wall Street movement is in many ways a sign of the moment. The unemployment rate has been hanging out around 9 percent for more than two years. Income inequality is rising. Washington’s political system has devolved into dysfunction. There is, in other words, plenty to protest.
But there’s another way to think about what’s going on in Zuccotti Park (and its far-flung spinoffs): People have many legitimate grievances these days, but they’re also more prone to protest than in the past. Occupy Wall Street, in this sense, represents a particular moment in time when people are really disgruntled, meeting a historic momentum — which has been building for decades — toward increased protest by everyone, about (or against) just about everything.
Sociologist David S. Meyer and political scientist Sidney Tarrow have called this the “social movement society.” In it, protest has moved from the fringe of American culture into the political mainstream. Over the last 30 years, it’s become easier to organize, and participation now comes with less of a cost. The number of people protesting has expanded, as have the causes they espouse. Protest has become ubiquitous, institutionalized even.
Before the movements of the 1960s and ’70s, “protest was what people who had no other way of getting things done would use,” Meyer said. “Protest was a good strategy for people who lacked other means to get what they want.”
“Those people still protest sometimes, people who don’t have other routes to influence,” Meyer said. “But they’re not the only people who protest. You have members of Congress getting arrested in the anti-apartheid movement — and you’d think members of Congress could go vote, or they could introduce legislation.”
He suggests that protest has more commonly become the punctuation mark on broader campaigns among people who may also contribute money, lobby politicians, form political action committees and vote to get what they want. Think, for example, of Glenn Beck’s Sept. 12 rally in Washington in 2009. That protest was part of a series of strategies deployed by riled Tea Party voters to shift the dialogue in Washington over government power and taxation.
Pre-1960s protest was generally the outlet of people who felt excluded in some way, and so it largely produced movements focused on forms of inequality. Protesters opposed authority (in the form of government, businesses or the church, for example). Now, they often oppose each other. Protest produces counter-protest. Abortion opponents draw pro-choice crowds; pro- and anti-gay marriage protesters square off from opposite corners of the same intersection; the Tea Party spawns something called the Coffee Party.