How Do Protest Movements End? They Win or They Fizzle

If history is any precedent, Occupy Wall Street won't end violently.

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Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

New York City police officers stand guard as protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement return to Zuccotti Park in New York November 15, 2011.

Despite the recent chaos at Occupy Wall Street, the global Occupy movement doesn’t look like it will fade away any time soon. So just how do experts expect this international protest movement to end? With history as a backdrop, S. Laurel Weldon, a Purdue University professor and author of When Protest Makes Policy, says large social protest movements have two likely endings: fizzling or winning, and “do not have to end violently.”

At this point, the Occupy Wall Street movement must figure it will make at least some impact, since the movement has lasted too long, stretched too far and driven economic inequality issues too deep into the mainstream dialogue to fade away, says Washington State University professor T.V. Reed, author of The Art of Protest.

Of course, nobody says the movement ever needs to really end, as Weldon points out that the civil rights movement has never really wrapped up. And just like the civil rights movement, women’s movements and even the recent Tea Party push, Weldon and Reed both expect the Occupy agenda to live on in politics, if not also on streets of New York City.

“I don’t think this is the end of the movement,” Reed says. “Already conversations have been changed and there is a new level of discourse about income inequality. It won’t fizzle out, there is enough energy it will likely be recreated and the occupy strategy (may increase) once the winter ends.”

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Reed says that while the look of the movement may shift, he fully expects a portion of the group to actively enter the political system and others to test out new Occupy strategies, such as on college campuses.

While violence has played as a well-known end to international protests (Tiananmen Square and Cape Town) and has cropped up in historic domestic protests (Stonewall and countless times in Oakland), history suggests violence won’t be the end to the current movement.

For the protesters, falling into a violent state will discredit their claims, turning public sentiment quickly against them, Weldon says, and could be the end of their demands. On the flip side, police oppression—or media oppression, which was seen in New York City this week—can galvanize a movement even more, gaining an overwhelming amount of sympathy from folks otherwise not inclined to back the group.

Since the movement’s fizzle factor has likely passed, and violence doesn’t serve as a well-thought-out strategic move for either side, Weldon and Reed expect this “wave” of economic inequality awareness to push into politics in the foreseeable future.

“Protests are successful when they generate attention or influence the political agenda,” Weldon says as the movement has already spread across over 70 U.S. cities. “Occupy Wall Street protesters want attention to an issue, not policy. Their power lies in their ability to talk about a solution, forcing elected officials, political candidates and business leaders to respond to the protesters.”

Even as some politicians discuss the agenda, the group may continue to mobilize and give rise to those politicians and business leaders who prove willing to discuss their issues, leaders who otherwise may not have had a powerful voice. “The movement is like a wave and you must be ready to ride the wave in,” Weldon says.

Getting what they want isn’t a far-fetched idea. Whether the Tea Party, women’s movements—that one took 80 years, but got what it desired and then regrouped for a new effort—civil rights and even the labor movement (weekends, anyone?), large-scale protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street have proven effective in getting their way. This is the most common end for such movements — if an end ever comes.

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