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Don't Let Occupy Be Occupied: 6 Ways to Fight the Creep to Institutionalize

Crucial movements of the past with clear and radical demands suffered a diminished voice when traditional organizational standards took hold. Hopefully not Occupy.

Photo Credit: David Shankbone


It's worth a long night’s conversation over your beverage of choice to explore the history of how becoming institutionalized affected the course of the civil rights and women’s movements, among others. Was the radical spirit of each distracted or stifled? Each of those movements came out of the gate with a powerful set of demands. Yet, once organizational dynamics took hold and divisions were confirmed by structure (think SCLC vis-à-vis  SNCC, or NOW vis-à-vis  NARAL) the chance of maintaining one strong voice committed to radical change diminished.  

Radicals became captive to a mindset dominated by the imperatives of competitive fundraising and institutions, rather than movement building. There were paydays to be met, auditors to be satisfied, board members and donors to be placated. To be clear, there is a stage when that evolution is inevitable in order to make the shift from fostering outrage to changing policy. At their best, strong, transparent and accountable formal organizations are essential building blocks for social change. But is this the appropriate role for Occupy? My eloquent colleague Alexa Bradley wrote:

The beauty of Occupy is that it is popular, wild, free. I don't mean that in a romantic sense, although there is that appeal too and it is part of its magnetism in an all-too-cynical time. I mean it in a political and social sense -- it exists outside the non-profit framework that is all too captive to a set of assumptions, norms, limits and needs. The resonance globally of Occupy is its clear roots in popular sentiment and movement, not a professionalized advocacy staff or agenda. Its power rests in the fact that it is un-circumscribed and therefore perhaps infinite in its circumference. We are all part of its we if we agree.

Paolo Freire said that all strategies are either domesticating or liberating. I see the institutionalization of Occupy as likely to be domesticating. It will become a creature of foundation funding and of the need to become "legitimate" in the eyes of other NGOs and political players. It will also lose contact with its base, people who do not want to come in from the cold, because they believe this is a position of power and integrity. Without them and the "we don't play by your rules" attitude, what power can OWS actually muster, whether moral, popular or otherwise?

Assuming that we don't want to see any diminution of the spirit of Occupy, here are six thoughts about what could neutralize the impact of Occupy; consider them for that long comradely conversation about the tensions between movement- and institution-building.

1. Don't put the IRS in charge.

Bad outcomes are often born of good intentions -- consider the social change-oriented non-profit. I give a contribution to an organization with an IRS-approved social purpose, I get a tax deduction. The organization does its best to fix society.   

If only it were that simple. But the IRS, always the voice box of conservative thinking, insists that my money be virtually untouched by the foul hand of partisan activity.  And that it stays entirely on the right side of the law. No nonviolent civil disobedience on a non-profit dime. In terms of day-to-day spending for systemic change, that translates into a penchant for policy-oriented reports, meetings and the occasional campaign. What it does not translate into is occupying anything. And, with notable exceptions, it dulls the voice from speaking truth to power. Heaven forefend that your 501(c)3 dollar be used to organize against legislation that will benefit the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of us. Those restrictions may be entirely compatible with the worlds of museums and ballets, social service agencies, or research organizations. But they aren’t compatible with achieving the level of social and environmental change that we crave.