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.
Meyer ticks off a number of explanations for so much protest popularity. Protesters themselves are no longer marginalized or permanently tarred as outsiders. And police generally are more adept at handling them than they were in the 1960s.
"You can say, 'OK, I want to go to a demonstration,'" Meyer said. "Regardless of the cause, you can be pretty sure, aside from traffic, that you can decide how much time you want to commit to it, and you're going to get home safely."
You may have even been to a protest where a police officer kindly asked everyone who would like to be arrested to please gather to one side.
"It becomes kind of routinized," Meyer said. "There's less risk involved. And that matters."
It's also simply become easier to organize (and publicize) movements, particularly with the proliferation of technological communication — (a trend also evident in the cascade of 'Spring' and 'Color' movements in authoritarian states). This point, though, comes with a catch: It's easier to get your message out, but it's harder to get people to care about it. Will you turn up for a protest if you have 10 other pleas in your inbox?
This question touches on one of the biggest uncertainties implied by the "social movement society."
"If everybody is doing it, and groups that are well-heeled, well-resourced and are also engaged in electoral politics are doing it, does it still matter in the same way?" Meyer asked. "And does it crowd out people who used to use it as their best shot? That's totally an open question."
He admits that he's not sure how to begin to answer that. Then he sidesteps the question by suggesting that the impact of a protest still depends on the success of all the other activities and strategies that go with it.
"The Tea Party mattered because it wasn't just a bunch of protests," he said. "And Occupy Wall Street will matter to the extent that it's able to inspire people to do things in addition to camping out in a park in lower Manhattan."