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The Scarlet & Black

The Critical Mass

To the titillation of every border collie within a mile radius, 1200 Grinnell residents came together on Mac Field this Wednesday to do the unprecedented: throw more frisbees simultaneously than any other group of people throwing frisbees simultaneously in history. For about two seconds, the red plastic discs wobbled in the air, then plummeted to the ground a few yards later.

Okay, so it was a little anticlimactic. But, in another respect, the organizers of the event achieved something remarkable: they united people. For about half an hour, a critical mass gathered at the same place at the same time for a common purpose. And it begs the question: What if they had gathered for a purpose other than throwing frisbees?

Earlier that day, I had gone to Central Park in town for a less publicized event: Occupy Grinnell’s May Day celebration. I was one of about twenty people who showed up at the gazebo for the gathering honoring International Workers Day. Speakers, both from town and from the Grinnell faculty, got up and spoke on issues ranging from union solidarity to globalization to the plight of undocumented workers. Musicians played guitar and sang labor songs. Overall, I had a very pleasant experience.

But something was missing. The fact is, events organized on behalf of an incredible mass of people — in this case, workers of the world — don’t have the same weight behind them when there’s not a mass of people attending them. I’m not condemning the world-record-setting that went on Wednesday. I just wish events like May Day could yield a similar turnout.
In its nascent months last fall, Occupy (everywhere, not just Grinnell) did not encounter such turnout problems. That’s understandable; the movement was new, exciting and compelling, and people tend to gravitate to social movements with these qualities. The problem is that, eight months later, Occupy no longer possesses novelty. That, combined with the perceived lag in momentum over the winter, large turnout no longer comes so readily.

However, the May Day demonstrations across the country and the world on Wednesday suggest a re-enlivening of the movement. In New York, Chicago and Oakland, thousands of protesters took to the street to honor workers and help visualize “a day without the 99 percent.”

I contend that this victory was partly to due to a specific issue motivating people to go out and demonstrate: that is, the immigration battle going on in the Supreme Court right now. Indeed, immigrants’ rights group constituted a large part of the marches on Wednesday. In general, I think Occupy does best when it is organizing around a specific issue or for a specific purpose. As Todd Gitlin, in a recent article about Occupy for The Nation, wrote: “In the realm of direct action, it’s crucial to gather new circles of supporters by winning tangible victories.” These “tangible victories,” whether getting Bank of America to drop its $5 debit card fee, defending citizens against illicit evictions, or preventing the construction of the Keystone pipeline (for a while), are what propel Occupy forward. Rhetoric can be compelling, but at the end of the day, people take time out of the schedules to demonstrate when they believe they can make real change.

The history of mass movements attests to the success of organizing around specific issues. Consider the fight for women’s suffrage in the 1920’s and for civil rights in the ‘50s and ‘60s, just to name two. Organizers for these movements realized they could build broad coalitions by uniting people against practices commonly perceived as unjust. Occupy needs to follow suit. I commend the strategy Occupy took in the beginning, refusing to issue demands, because I think it made a really important point about the inability of our existing institutions to address any such demands, but Occupy is at a critical point right now and needs to build a critical mass. As history can attest, movements never succeed unless they are mass movements.

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