Lessons from the failure of Occupy Wall Street, its lasting legacy

Summary:  This is chapter 46 in a series about how to reform America. Today we discuss lessons from the Occupy Wall Street Movement. OWS was a standard peasants’ protest. Entertainment for participants, providing practice in infiltration and suppression by the police, ineffectual in results. Structurally and operationally they did almost everything wrong. They were large protests, but weak and inept — providing valuable lessons for the future .

Victory Is The Goal

Leadership and organization

A lack of strong leadership guarantees failure. Goals, structure, focus, discipline — everything that made the civil rights demonstrations of Martin Luther King’s era successful — comes from strong competent leadership. All were absent from OWS.

Large numbers of participants mean nothing if they’re attracted by the action, and come to promote varied agenda. They muddle the protest’s message, creating meaningless ephemeral street festivals.

A far worse effect: they prevent formation of effective leadership. Meetings become an endless pointless cacophony, without common goals or principles, which drives away competent people.


The Roman’s called it gravitas: dignity, seriousness, solemnity of manner. It visually conveys that these people warrant attention. On television it might be the most important characteristic of the protest.

A carnival-like attitude immediately conveys the opposite message. Costumes, slovenly dress, disorder in structure, wide range of messages from the participants (seen in placards and interviews) = street festival, people having fun seeking attention, but inconsiderately disrupting other citizens’ lives = appropriate subjects or police action. Like a party of drunks on the sidewalk at rush hour.


Be transparent. Assume total surveillance by the police, so keep only secrets necessary for marketing purposes (e.g., like Apple does for new products). Between infiltrators and electronic surveillance, the police will know as much as they want to know.

Have an immune system, as external threats often work from within. Survival requires formal mechanisms to identify and manage:


  • agents provocateur (an ancient and devastatingly effective tool to destroy reform movements from within).
  • violent agitators: people who enjoy violence, gravitating to organizations that provide concealment and justification.

These people will be among your most effective: dedicated, capable, energetic. Often bringing in valuable resources. Bait on the hook, attractive but lethal. The role of agents provocateur in the demise of OWS has not been well documented (an expression of its organizational failure), but the role of agitators has been:

  1. The Cancer in Occupy“, Chris Hedges, Truthdig, 6 February 2012
  2. Paint the Other Cheek: Debates about violence threaten to break apart the Occupy movement“, Nathan Schneider, The Nation, 2 April 2012


Violence is the fast track to failure for a reform movement. A major goal of agents provocateur is to incite violence, which forecloses public support and justifies extremely oppressive efforts by the government.

This is especially so in the post-9/11 era. A founder of New America — one of the giants in America history, George Bush Jr — used 9/11 to vastly expand the security services (formerly known as law enforcement) at all levels. More people, more powers, more military equipment, more surveillance capabilities, fewer restraints. This apparatus needs to be fed, and a violent reform movement provides raw meat to it.

Pepper spray by police
Police pepper-spraying at the Occupy Protest at UC Davis, 18 November 2011

Prepare to be suppressed

The police response will be massive, broad spectrum, multi-dimensional, over-whelming, competently planned and executed, and brutal. The only defense is to gain the public’s support through an effective multi-media campaign before and during the protest.

Given the public’s apathy, defense means mitigation of the brutality and preparing to respond afterwards.

Record everything. Lots of cameras, from multiple perspectives, storing the records in multiple secure locations. Form the arrival at the site to treatment of injuries at the hospital. The government and its cheerleaders will lie, boldly without limit. Journalists will print their statements as gospel. Extensive documentation is the only rebuttal.

The after-action phase determines the result

Like swinging the bat in baseball and the club in golf, a strong follow-through is essential for success. If only the government dominates the game after the protest, they win.

Prepare for legal representation, bail, and trials.

If possible, prepare an aggressive legal assault, with the ability and resources to file charges of police brutality, perjury, and slander.

The Grim Truth

Protests become effective only when problems become serious, obvious, entrenched. The civil rights protests arose after a century of oppression following the Civil War (i.e., after one of the most successful insurgencies in history). The anti-war demonstrations in Vietnam arouse only after there were half a million troops there, only after the war was lost.

Protests against the New America have arisen only after its structure has been laid on the ruins of the America that once was.

The problem in a nutshell: the Left has the interest, even passion, for reform. But is incapable of effectively organizing for it. The Right has the capability of doing so, but will fight to prevent it. Success requires unlocking this conundrum.

Why do they hate us?

Start small. Grow with resilience

Great trees grow differently than Occupy, starting small but with deep roots. Start small, develop skills and people, tap larger networks of resources, grow. Reform movements are complex and dynamic, requiring large resources. They’re not easily or quickly built.

Built to be resilient, able to rise again after being stepped on.

A look at our past

Sometime after WWII we left that path of self-government, finding it too difficult for us. When we again step onto that road we might not see the eventual victory; it might lie too far in the distance.  But it’s there.  The cost of the journey might prove high, but probably small compared to what we’ve paid in the past. Such as in these two chapters of our history.

(1)  In May 1764 Samuel Adams took his first steps to end British rule in America (see here for details).  That same year a small group of people in Boston formed the first of the Committees of Correspondence.  The Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

(2)  In 1774 Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded America’s first anti-slavery society.  In 1868 we ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the mid-1960′s the great Civil Rights legislation ended the government-sponsored oppression of Blacks.

We can do equally great deeds in the future.  We lack only the vision and the will.

For More Information

(a)  Reference pages listing other posts about American politics:

  1. How can we stop the quiet coup now in progress?
  2. Posts about ways to reform America
  3. Steps to political change, and reforming America
  4. Posts about seeing America clearly, in the mirror

(b)  About protests:

  1. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  2. How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?, 26 October 2011
  3. The Million Vet March, a typical peasants’ protest. Does it portend more serious protests in our future?, 13 October 2013



9 thoughts on “Lessons from the failure of Occupy Wall Street, its lasting legacy”

  1. This is probably your single best post on the topic of “reigniting the spirit of a nation grown cold.” Are you prepared for government retaliation?

    I do not believe it is likely but there are number of laws that would consider your post to be sponsoring terrorism. My favorite law in that category is the one that makes it illegal to give legal advice to accused terrorists.

  2. I am more positive about OWS. When a person speaks of ‘the 1%’ , they are speaking of a concept that OWS popularized. That alone is success.

    1. John,

      (1) Count me among the skeptics of that theory. Agitation about increasing income and wealth inequality long predates Occupy, and I doubt that Occupy had much influence in raising awareness if this trend. If you have contrary evidence I’d be interested in seeing it.

      (2) Even as a phrase the origin is debated (this is a trivial point, IMO):

      (3). If that’s the only result of the large commitment of time and resources to produce Occupy, that’s called “losing”. It’s past and left nothing of substance behind. From reading the Left’s reaction to OWS, not even any lessons learned. failure most complete.

  3. Great post.

    One of the most common arguments against such protests I have encountered personally is of the type, “how can you complain about your situation here in America when there are millions living in extreme poverty around the world?”

    How does a movement in a modern country such as ours create a sense of importance, when the majority of its citizens are comfortable with their current lifestyles?

    1. Eric,

      You are more patient than I, treating such a question seriously (the first in your comment). We are responsible for management of our nation. While our shared humanity gives us reason to help others, we are not their colonial overlords — and so are not responsible for management of other peoples.

  4. Suppressing dissent at home and promoting it abroad-eve training neo nazis to do dirty work…

    Ukraine’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Reality
    May 5, 2014

    Exclusive: The horrendous fire in Odessa, killing dozens of ethnic Russians protesting against the U.S.-backed coup regime in Kiev, has lurched the country closer to full-scale civil war and disrupted the American media’s efforts to deny the existence of pro-regime neo-Nazis, Robert Parry reports.

    The Polish weekly refers to photographs attesting to the training, which show the Ukrainians in Nazi uniforms alongside their Polish instructors in civilian clothing

    Ukraine: Poland trained putchists two months in advance

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