Occupy: A Social Movement for Equality and Justice

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

By Brian Wedderburn, Skylar Lewis, Sophy Ouk, Brady Osborne, Richard Basco, Allison Basham, Dane Stuffy

Sonoma State University—Investigative Sociology Spring 2012

Peter Phillips Instructor


Courtesy of OccupySantaRosa.com


An investigative sociology report conducted by Sonoma State University sociology students reveals the intricacy of social activism within the Occupy Santa Rosa community. The findings show three distinct core themes within the movement: Activism as the catalyst for change, collective consciousness, and community. Through protests and direct action the Occupy movement is fostering a change of ideology and values, which is affecting their communities’ collective consciousness.  Occupy seeks to awaken people to the fact that poorly regulated banks and corporations associated with Wall Street are unsustainable institutions, whose economic and political power is at direct odds with democracy in America.



The Occupy Movement started on September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park, New York City and has since spread globally. The Movement as defined by Occupy Wall Street (OWS), is a leaderless opposition movement and includes people of many HYPERLINK “http://pococcupywallstreet.tumblr.com/”“colors, genders and political persuasions” (OWS, 2011). It also brings social activism and solidarity to fight against the 1%, and stands up for the 99%.


Not only has the Occupy Movement brought awareness to the issue of global inequality, but it has also strived to educate many around the world and helped encourage them to fight against the corporate greed. Since October 9, Occupy protests have taken place in over 95 cities across 82 countries with over 600 groups in the United States.  Occupy group actions have occurred on every continent.  The protests initially began with setting up camps, tents, and other means of protest such as camping with outdoor kitchens in areas such as key financial district.  The camps were set up in the first two months of protesting, while nationally coordinated police were encouraged to clear out the camps. Although most of permanent camps were forcibly removed, many cities still organized large daily demonstrations. Each Occupy group city is unique in what they are fighting for but overall, the protest is against the 1% power elite of the world.


The Occupy Movement involves a broad array of goals and its core values vary from unequal income distribution to the overarching theme, the system is broken. Our research team conducted interviews of occupiers in hopes to further find themes regarding what the occupy movement is all about.


Media and Literature Review


When Time magazine named its Person of the Year for 2011, they did so to recognize the person who had the most influence on world culture and the news in that year.  For 2011, Time named ‘the protestor’ as their person of the year.  ‘The protestor’ has been something that has come about in countries all over the world where people are standing up and fighting for what they believe in:


“Our person of the year for 2011 is the protester; the men and women around the world, particularly in the Middle East, who toppled governments, who brought a sense of democracy and dignity to people who hadn’t had it before,” Managing Editor Rick Stenger told the “Today” show. “I think speaking of the year ahead, these are folks who are changing history already and they will change history in the future.”


‘The protestors’ are trying to redefine power and are stepping up all over the world in order to change what is happening in their countries.  In the United States, Occupy Wall Street began in New York and spread over several cities throughout the U.S.  It is a group of protestors, whose goals include implementing a truly free democratic and just society where people live in harmony and respect diversity.


One known central core theme of the Occupy movement is income inequality. Income inequality is greater when differences in income between one person and another are large and widespread (Kelley & Klein, 1981, p. 1). The Occupy movement is standing up for the 99% of people who share similar income levels that are vastly below the income level of the 1%. It has been noted by Occupiers that the richest 1% of Americans own 35%~ of our nation’s wealth income while the 99% share the remaining 65%~ of the nation’s income. Occupy seeks to peacefully protest for a change to the makeup of the capitalist system.


In their book Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality (1981), Jonathan Kelley and Herbert Klein provide a definition along with certain aspects of a revolution:


“The most fundamental characteristics of a revolution are that it redistributes income, taking from the old elite and giving to the poor. It leaves those who were exploited by the old regime better off than they were before, reduces inequality between the rich and the poor, and reduces inherited privilege in the society as a whole,” (p. 191).


Similar characteristics within the Occupy Movement include, trying to reduce the exploitation of the 99%, redistributing income, while also improving the 99%’s ability to improve their economic opportunities. Revolutions can be expected to redistribute income and physical capital, making for a more equal distribution of wealth and income (Kelley & Klein, 1981, p. 184). Kelley and Klein provide an example of this in regards to the 1952 Bolivian revolution in which peasant farmers defeated the national army, took over the country capital, and redistributed wealth among the country peasants and farmers. One key ingredient present in the Bolivian revolution, not present in the Occupiers agenda to change our capitalist system, is violence. Bolivian revolutionaries created worker and civilian militias that took over as the dominant military force in the country. To obtain their goals and abolish inequality, Bolivian revolutionaries took to violent measures. Kelley and Klein believe to be the only way for a revolution to work is to do so radically and with such violent measures. According to Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality, the Occupy movement will not succeed in social change without turning to radical measures to do so.


When observing the Occupy Movement, along with income inequality, another important concept to analyze is the theory of social movements. Social movements have to do with various fundamental agents that are present within every social movement. In his book, Revolution: A Sociological Perspective, Michael S. Kimmel believes that social movements start with two main sources of motivation:


“I believe that we can identify two sources of motivation, two emotions that combined, propel people into revolutionary activity and motivate their behavior. These two emotions are despair and hope…despair and hope motivate revolutionary activity in tandem; they are mutually reinforcing emotions in a society where structural conditions might produce a revolutionary situation,” (1990, p. 12).


Despair and hope, according to Kimmel, drive people to stand up for themselves and change the inequalities that plague their lives. Kimmel stresses the importance of the two emotions -hope and disappear- and the way in which they motivate in tandem,


“Neither [hope nor despair] alone captures my image of revolutionary motivation; it is neither the grinding misery of economic poverty and political repression nor the euphoric utopian “mad inspiration” of the visionary that alone can account for revolutionary participation (Trotsky, 1930: 320). Despair may make revolutionary activity necessary, but hope transforms a rebellion or revolt into a purposive and visionary movement, one capable of transforming the social foundations of political power,” (1990, p. 12).


Kimmel believes that for revolution to be successful, hope and despair must go hand-in-hand. Despair makes hope possible, and hope makes a purposeful and visionary movement possible. The Occupy movement is one of both despair, due to the large gap in income inequality, and hope, due to the large number of protestors that have rallied in solidarity all over the country to support the same cause.


Moral, civic, and political questions of the present and past are also fundamental aspects that need to be considered when looking at a social movement. Kimmel argues that, “Revolutions have their structural roots deeply embedded in the society’s past” (1990, p. 9). Furthermore, he states that the task of the social scientist is to sort out the long-run structural causes versus the shorter-run events that set these structures in motion, and the immediate historical events that ignite the conflict (1990, p.9).


The British Student protests of 2010, along with the Arab Spring protests, and the Greek and Spanish anti-austerity protests of the “Indignados” serve as such immediate historical events that ignited the Occupy movement. Adbusters, a Canadian magazine group, initiated the call for the first Occupy protests.


In Social Movements in Advanced Capitalism, Steven Buechler explains, “Indeed, the prevailing view of social movements at a given historical moment reflects not just existing movements but also the larger socio-historical climate, the dominant sociological paradigms, and the biographies of scholars themselves,” (2000, p. 19).


This of course explains how the most important observation of a political movement is in fact the larger sociological picture of the actual movement itself. For the occupy movement it is clear that the trigger of the movement has to do with the unbalanced economic structure that plagues the American capitalistic system. Kalle Lasn and Micah White of Adbuster’s, and their pleas to their subscribers ultimately led to the first occupation in lower Manhattan in June 2011.


The Occupy Movement is a social and economic protest with a goal that involves creating a more egalitarian society. The typical sentiment among protesters is that this must be achieved by enforcing stricter regulation on the big banks and corporations on Wall Street. This idea does not go over so well with the ruling class in America; thus at times, The Movement has been repressed with police violence.


In Robert Reich’s article, “Why We Must Occupy Democracy” he examines economic disparity between the wealthy elite (who occupiers would refer to as the 1%) and points out the increasing violence. In his short but precise examination Reich makes a case for continuing the non-violent efforts put forth by the Occupy Movement. America is often touted as “The Land of the Free”, yet Reich points out that in the current climate of an economic depression Americans, specifically those who identify with the Occupy movement, are “assaulted, clubbed, dragged, pepper-sprayed” when attempting to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly.


While these disenfranchised occupiers are seeing their rights stripped away, corporations and politicians are being afforded more rights than ever.  Recent rulings by the Supreme Court have likened corporations to people and money to speech and ended all limits on political spending.  This has allowed for what Reich calls “a revolving door between official Washington and Wall Street” and this allows those with money to play by a completely different set of rules.  Reich sees the contributions from the wealthy to Washington as an investment in their continued preferential treatment.  Reich points out that “tax rates on the super-rich are now lower than they’ve been in three decades” even as the long-term budget deficit continues to rise. Furthermore, Reich states that the 400 richest Americans have a larger total wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans and pay only an average tax rate of 17 percent.  The Wall Street bail out happened without a single string attached and those responsible for the poverty of the working-class continue to acquire greater wealth, unscathed.


Reich states, “If there’s a single core message to the Occupier movement it’s that the increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top endangers our democracy.  With money comes political power.”  Reich believes that if democracy is to be saved, as we witness even greater equality in the distribution of wealth, than Americans have to get out there and make their voices heard.  Reich explains that it is exactly the times when one’s voice is being muffled that one must speak loudest.”



Our Research Methods

Participants: Interviews


Our research procedure included 24 interviews various members of the Occupy Movement Organizations, specifically the local Occupy Santa Rosa (OSR) group.  Each interview was loosely structured by an interview guide that was established with an inform consent followed by specific pertinent questions regarding the Occupy Movement. The interviews were also audio recorded with provided consent from the occupiers. In addition, each interview could last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes long, depending upon how extensive the occupier answers the question. After each interview, the occupier will receive contact information if they wish to contact specific group members and/or the professor (Peter Phillips). Furthermore, our research team consists of seven individuals who conducted interviews. The interviews were conducted by two members of our research group.


After each completed interview, each group member will summarize their interviews they conducted specifically looking for key points and themes of the Occupy Movement.




Our findings were developed into three distinguishable core themes. Activism as the catalyst for change, collective consciousness, and community were the core themes identified. We used interviewee responses to help describe the core motives within the themes. These are our findings:


Activism as the Catalyst for Change


There is a strong consensus within the Occupy Movement that change can only come about through direct action.  It is the notion that people must actively involve themselves in revolution, resistance, or some form of direct action in order to make any impact.  In interviews conducted with members of the Occupy Santa Rosa (OSR) community it becomes clear that such activism can take several shapes.


Many interviewees stated they were members of what Occupy calls “working groups” in which members narrow their focus down to a specified goal.  For example, many individuals interviewed stated they were part of (or familiar with) a working group known as the “Dorothy Day” working group in which their current goal is to “legalize sleep”.  In essence, this working group is attempting to change current local legislation, which criminalizes sleeping outdoors, in one’s car, and various other public spaces.  Individuals in this working group have deemed such laws as unfair and discriminatory towards the homeless population; a population already suffering from a societal inability to have basic needs met.  Such is the view of many “occupiers”; that those who find themselves in disenfranchised populations do so because of inequality on the part of society, especially the community’s ability to take care of individual members.  The individuals interviewed do not see such missteps as the fault of an individual person, but rather of a system designed to empower few (the 1%) while leaving the majority (the 99%) with little recourse.


The Occupy Movement is self-described as a “leaderless resistance movement” (Occupy Wall Street website).  It is the Occupy Movement’s determination to operate in a truly democratic fashion, which sets it apart from other resistance movements.  It is through the general assembly (GA), which occupiers believe the culmination of such democracy is seen, “I think the general assemblies are one of the best symbols of the movement and one of the best practices of the movement because it gives people a place to enter without a big handshaking or in-taking process…” (Occupy interviewee).  Nothing in the Occupy Movement moves forward without approval from the GA, and in order for an idea or plan to be implemented there must be an 85% approval rate.


A general assembly will not be held without at least the presence of 10 individuals and currently OSR holds three GA’s per week.  Re-occurring throughout interviews with individual members of OSR were statements expressing the notion that only a true democracy can be representative of all members of society and the belief by most interviewees that the current system in America is not a true democracy and represents only the interests of the so-called 1%.


“I think the GA really is where it’s at and a large public consensus-based decision-making model is so utterly different than anything that anybody has done in our society,” (Occupy interviewee) such an idea as expressed by an OSR member seems to ring true throughout most interviews conducted.


A view often impressed upon Americans is the idea that through the electoral process America is in fact a democracy; that an individual’s “right to vote” is key in setting America apart from “the other guys”, perhaps such is a reference to third world countries and those identified as the evil and dreaded communist states.  However, in conducting interviews with members of Occupy Santa Rosa an overwhelming majority expressed beliefs to the contrary.  Most individuals interviewed stated that though they vote they do not believe their vote will make a difference in the way this country is run.  One woman interviewed stated, “I think if voting could change anything they’d make it illegal”, yet she went on to explain that she continually casts her vote.


It is as if the idea of voting as a catalyst for change is such a part of American society that one cannot part with the ritual for fear that they may hinder democracy even in light of such a strong distrust for the current system.  Another self-identified member of OSR explains that due to the way the United States’ two-party system is set up, the emergence of a third party is almost impossible and the current two-party system has not and is not interested in changing anything.  “The two parties that we have are both pro-status quo, so through voting, in the Unites States at least, you are not going to achieve anything and we have seen that with Obama, who I feel has really betrayed what he supposedly stood for.”  The individuals interviewed clearly believe it will take an assertive, proactive, “take it to the streets” form of activism to bring about change in the world.


It is important to note that all those interviewed expressed their belief that non-violent action is the route they personally and the Occupy Movement as a whole wish to take.  Though a few of the individuals interviewed expressed that they do not “morally” oppose violence, when confronted with the question of how they feel in regards to property damage as a form of activism every person interviewed saw such an act as detrimental to the Occupy Movement.  Many expressed that those who commit such acts are a “fringe” group and when one examines any instance of property damage attributed to the Occupy Movement they will see very few people involved in such acts while the majority of activists are engaging in peaceful, non-violent action.


The goal of the Occupy Movement is clearly not to re-elect Obama or any other politician.  It is to completely overhaul what is seen as a corrupt and extremely unequal system, a system that continually and progressively oppresses and disenfranchises the masses while being of benefit only to a very miniscule number of individuals.


For example, the richest 400 Americans have a larger total wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans (Reich, 2011).  The Occupy Movement has coined such descriptive terms as the 1% and the 99% in order to express the unequal distribution of wealth in America and to relay to Americans that it is the majority of us who suffer, the majority of us who are not given decision-making power.  Instead it is a small group of extremely wealthy individuals who make decisions, which affect everyone in society.  Twenty-one out of twenty-four individuals interviewed in this study stated that they would like to see individuals in their community become active in any way those individuals felt they were able to.  Expressed was the idea that each individual has certain strengths, which others may not have and if those strengths were brought together, then collectively there could be greater force given to the Occupy Movement and subsequently the ability to accomplish greater goals within the community.


Collective Consciousness


Male, OSR Treasurer, “The hope is that I can live in a less profoundly evil, alien, socially malformed, deranged society- I am not sure what that looks like… I would like to make it more decent. What we have right now is not decent; in fact it’s profoundly evil.”


One of the main themes that were found within the interviewees was that the Occupy movement was not just seeking a simple change in government or the economy but instead an overall change in ideology. Occupy activist are focused on educating and changing the overall mind-set of the people in order to effect the collective consciousness as a whole. Occupy believes we are living in a society that is completely backwards and changing just one of the many problems would do little to help. Occupy has decided that in order for real change to happen there must first be a change of people’s attitudes within society. Occupy members feel that by “waking people up” we will start to achieve goals that will bring about real change.


The idea that Occupy struggles to make its vision clear comes from people misunderstanding this demand. The opposition fails to understand what this sort of change would in fact prove. The main goal of changing the overall perception of the world takes generations to achieve, however it is clear that this is the first step for Occupy. Above anything else the direction for this movement needs to concentrate on “waking people up” which is by far the most important aspect of the cause. If Occupy can change people’s outlook on the world, then we can figure out ways to remedy the problems together.




The last reoccurring theme that we found in our research was the sense of community and togetherness that the interviewees valued.  In numerous interviews conducted by our team, interviewees continued to reiterate the importance of community within Sonoma County. This sentiment along with a disdain for corporate banks has even lead some to suggest the creation of a local community bank. Within Sonoma County a sense of community may had already existed for many, but it has been the Occupy movement that is challenging people to consider what it takes to really support one’s community.


The Occupy Movement has shown that people can come together and build a sense of community.  At OSR rallies and protests the organization, Food Not Bombs would have small kitchens set up to feed everybody. This action makes a political statement, takes a stand for community, and in these pressuring economic times it helps those whom may not have access to food.  The Occupiers want a community of people who help each other, not a community of people who exploit others to make profit.


One interviewee stated that we should learn the skills we used to know in older times, and use those to trade with each other and support each other throughout the community.  “You can live on a block all your life and not know your neighbors or what they do.  It’s a nasty system that we are in.  Everyone has their skill; everyone has something they can put into it.  I hope everyone realizes they have the power to do something,” (Male, 25 years old).


In today’s society, issues such as money, religion, politics, etc. currently divide, not just Sonoma County, but also the rest of the United States.  What occupy participants are trying to influence all around the world is for people to put their differences of opinion, differences of money, differences of religions and politics aside and come together to conquer the issues at hand.  As many interviewees stated, America needs to be awakened and brought back to life.  We are currently all walking around like a bunch of “heartless zombies” either naïve or indifferent to the issues we are currently facing in this country.  “We need to turn off our TVs, walk outside, and realize what’s going on with the world before we make a huge mistake,” (Occupy Protester).


One sentiment that was shared by many of the Occupy protesters interviewed was the immediate feeling of community and belonging to something where they feel they can make a change.  Many of the participants said that they joined Occupy because they really felt they belonged there and could make a change.


A twenty-two year old male participant stated, “I think that Occupy is a form of community function.” In order to promote a sense of community, OSR has recently called upon participants to establish a daily presence in Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa. “Our plan is to be present from 9 am to 9 pm every day, holding signs, reaching out to our community, serving food, holding meetings and events, and building a community of struggle to free ourselves from Wall St.’s tyranny,”(OSR organizer). Many protesters have stated that community is what we have lost over the years and this is a fight to get it back. The Occupy movement is an expression of people coming together to create change.  That alone shows a growing sense of community.  The stresses of capitalism had forced us away from community, but it is now after the financial disaster on Wall Street, that we are re-envisioning what it takes to build the type of compassionate and sustainable community.


Activism within the Community: “Working Groups”

Occupy Santa Rosa coordinates direct action within the community via “Working Groups” (WG’s). The WG’s consist of Occupy members, of which many are simultaneously involved with more than one WG. Listed here is an accounting of Occupy Santa Rosa’s WG’s that are active according to the O.S.R. calendar. Included is a brief description of each WG.

Working Group                                                                   Description

Action WG Organizes direct action such as protest rallies and marches.

Comedy/Theatre WG Produces and performs street theatre, puppet shows and is   “creating a satirical website to poke fun at ourselves, and more importantly, at the 1%” (occupysantarosa.org)


Corp. are not Persons WG “The Corporations are not Persons Coalition WG is mandated to plan, promote and carry out direct action and educate the public in order to Amend the Constitution, taking away corporate rights which should be restricted to actual living humans and ensuring that money does not equal speech in our system”(occupysantarosa.org).


Dorothy Day WG                         “Combines direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf” (occupysantarosa.org).


Free School WG “Devoted to educational events and programs that will help build alliances across the 99% and support the creation of a just and peaceful economy” (occupysantarosa.org).


Prairie Fire WG         “Defends vital government funded social and public services   from budgets cuts, elimination and privatization. Vital defined as programs focused on the physical, mental, socio-economic, wellbeing of its citizen, and the physical environment” (Prairie Fire W.G. website).


Media & Communications WG    “Responsible for web & social media, video/radio, press, and P.R.”(occupysantarosa.org).


Media/Outreach WG “Communicates with the press, builds media networks, and does outreach into the larger community” (occupysantarosa.org).


Mediation WG Works out internal conflicts within the Occupy community.


Strategy WG Plans the strategies for Occupy’s direct action within the community.


Treasury Committee Coordinates fundraising and finances. 


Workers Committee “A working group committed to outreach into working-class communities” (occupysantarosa.org).


*Other active groups within the Occupy Santa Rosa community include the OSR band, which performs music during marches and rallies; and also the “non-violence for daily living discussion group” which meets weekly for “20 minutes of meditation, followed by 1.5 hrs of theoretical discussion, personal sharing, and inspirations on Gandhi’s Principled Non-Violence”(occupysantarosa.org) 


**Each Working Group sends 1 to 2 of their members to the weekly Spokes Council, which “serves as a forum for coordination and dialogue between all of the WG’s” (occupysantarosa.org).


Support from local Organizations


Local human rights groups in Sonoma County are actively working with OSR, helping to organize various forms of direct action within the community. One Occupy Santa Rosa member described OSR as a “Frankensteining of organizations together that might have been aligned along similar ideological or political lines”.  The Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County provides consulting for OSR and also serves as a location for some OSR Working Groups to hold meetings. Other local human rights groups that work in conjunction with OSR include, the Sonoma County Living Wage Coalition, Advocates for Social Justice of Santa Rosa, immigrant rights organizations, and also, the ACLU of Sonoma County has worked to defend the free-speech rights of OSR protesters.




The Occupy Movement is solidifying a social activist movement within their greater local community. Via protests and direct action, The Occupy Movement is fostering a change of ideology and values, which is affecting their communities’ collective consciousness. In order to the change the greater collective consciousness Occupy seeks to awaken people to the fact that weakly regulated banks and corporations in Wall Street are unsustainable institutions whose economic and political power is at direct odds with democracy in America. Occupy stands for a self-sustaining community, which does not exploit labor and protects its individuals and the environment. Occupy believes that the financial sector must be more strictly regulated in order to protect liberty, democracy and human rights.


Works Cited


Anderson, K. (2011, Dec. 14). Time: Person of the Year. New York Times: Retrieved from http://www.time.com.


Buechler, Steven. (2000). Social Movements in Advanced Capitalism. New York: Oxford Press.


Fligstein, Neil, and Doug McAdam. (2012). Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields. American Sociological Association.



Kimmel, Michael S. (1990). Revolution: A Sociological Interpretation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Kelley, Jonathan & Herbert S. Klein. (1981). Revolution and the Rebirth of Inequality. London: University of California Press.


No Author. (n.d.). Occupy Santa Rosa. Retrieved May 8, 2012, from HYPERLINK “https://www.occupysantarosa.org”https://www.occupysantarosa.org


No Author. (2012, January 15). Out mission and focus. In Prairie Fire Working Group of Santa Rosa. Retrieved May 8, 2012, from HYPERLINK “https://sites.google.com//ireworkinggroup/is-pfwg”https://sites.google.com///is-pfwg


Reich, R. (2011, November 23). Why We Must Occupy Democracy [Editorial]. Common Dreams. Retrieved from HYPERLINK “http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/11/24-5″http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/11/24-5


Thorson-Smith, Sylvia. (2011). PVJ takes a look at the “Occupy Wall Street”

movement. Network News, 5-8.






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