What started as a small demonstration in Lower Manhattan has grown into a legitimate, if still nascent, social movement, one that is thriving despite a lack of specific policy goals, organizational structure or identifiable leaders. The Occupy movement’s leaderless global reach challenges more than the economic inequality it is protesting; it also calls into question our existing models of social movements. On the same weekend when thousands took to the streets in rallies around the world in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, America dedicated a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. in recognition of his courageous, galvanizing and effective leadership of the civil rights movement. The monument represents King as a serious and solitary figure standing apart and above, offering wisdom and inspiration. It’s a stark contrast to the scrappy, self-directed youth of the Occupy movement, who reject hierarchy and formal leadership in favor of radically egalitarian models of governing by consensus.
There will be no Martin Luther King of the Occupy movement—no single figure empowered to present demands to the White House and negotiate outcomes on behalf of the demonstrators. Even as we freeze in stone the complicated, multi-dimensional and contested King, the Occupy efforts raise the political question: Is an energetic, international, populist action sustainable without defined leadership? And what kind of leadership can emerge in this environment?
On October 5, a few weeks after Occupy Wall Street began, three men died: the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Derrick Bell and Steve Jobs. Like the protesters, each was a product of his time and place. And each offered a different model of leadership that might prove useful to the protesters as they move into the next phase of organizing.
The eldest, Shuttlesworth, understood economic inequality in its most egregious form, having grown up in crushing rural poverty in Jim Crow Alabama. Though he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which provided the organizational basis of much of King’s work, Shuttlesworth was as fierce a critic of King as he was an ally. He accused King of trying to be “Mr. Big” and relying on “flowery speeches,” preferring himself to be in the trenches. Shuttlesworth deployed the power of nonviolent direct action in the most personal and painful ways, making his body a target of white supremacy in order to dramatize the evil of racial inequality. He was brutalized by the Ku Klux Klan and uniformed police. The Occupy protesters already rely on such tactics of physical resistance. But they might also learn from his capacity to direct those tactics toward specific policy ends. Although he is known for his caustic and blunt leadership, Shuttlesworth was highly focused on outcomes and strikingly good at organization building. Throughout his life, he pressed the SCLC to maintain a clear civil rights agenda focused on equal access to economic opportunity and egalitarian political practices. He could also cite state legislation that needed amending or ending.
Nearly a decade younger, Derrick Bell was not a participant in those street struggles—he battled the residual racism that infected American legal and academic institutions years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act—but he regularly took personal and professional risks. He was told to give up his NAACP membership while working in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department because it posed a conflict of interest. Instead of quitting the NAACP, he quit the Justice Department. After becoming the first African-American to earn tenure at Harvard Law School, he abandoned his professorship in protest of the school’s inability or unwillingness to hire a tenured woman of color on the law faculty. Both choices were the sort that raise skepticism about their effectiveness. What difference does it make if one person chooses not to engage with a powerful institution? The resignation of one worker should barely cause a ripple in huge bureaucracies and entrenched educational institutions. Bell, unlike Shuttlesworth, was not particularly confrontational, yet he made the choice not to contribute his talents to organizations he deemed unethical. When the Occupy protesters close their accounts at major banks they are taking a similar stand: a small but meaningful choice not to engage with a system they feel is unfair.
Finally there is Steve Jobs, perhaps the most troubling figure to try to understand in the context of the Occupy movement. The death of the billionaire and CEO of a global corporation—whose massive profits were generated in part by the cheap labor of Asian workers who made products they could not consume—did not prompt a discussion of the unfairness of Apple’s global economic practices. Occupiers coordinate action on iPhones and capture police misconduct on iPads, revealing the inherent contradictions of a protest for economic justice fueled by technology produced with cheap foreign labor. Still, the genius of Jobs, not the inequalities represented by his wealth, was the overwhelming requiem of his leadership. In a world where capitalism is the only remaining economic system in meaningful operation, these protesters are faced with the task of imagining something concrete they can sell in the marketplace of ideas to replace the existing frayed and tattered economies. They are not calling for an end to capitalism, but they are demanding reform of the inequalities that are deeply embedded in the system. Imagining and fighting for an alternative is the political equivalent of inventing the Mac—and they could certainly learn something about innovation from Jobs. As one set of leaders passes on, a new movement is rising. What they carry from the past and what they make anew could have consequences for all of us for decades.