Why Occupy Wall Street will need more leaders


Occupy Wall Street protesters regroup in Foley Square after New York City police in riot gear removed the protesters from Zuccotti Park early on November 15, 2011. (Spencer Platt/GETTY IMAGES)

Does it reinvigorate a group of protestors who, facing a harsh winter ahead, would have begun to look thin and disinterested? Does the threat of arrests and police raids mean the protestors will disperse, spelling the beginning of the end of the Occupy movement? Or does a court order saying the protestors can return with tents mean everything will continue as it was before, albeit in a cleaner park?

It’s hard to know for now. But one thing that will change: If the movement is to survive, more leaders will have to emerge from what is, for the most part, a leaderless movement. Protestors may still chant back and forth to each other. They may still hold general assemblies that democratically make decisions. But the protestors face a new set of challenges that are likely to need leaders to fill the void.

It will need experienced organizers who can help to reconnect the dispersed protestors and rebuild, if they are able, the society that had developed around Zuccotti Park. The power of social media to organize is about to be tested. If the movement is to survive, my guess is the motivational and organizational power of inspiring leaders—people unwaveringly committed to the cause and skilled at bringing people together—will be needed, too.

It will also need more leaders with legal expertise. The National Lawyers’ Guild and the Liberty Park Legal Working Group may have scored a victory with the court order. But to fight these issues in the courts, more people will need to emerge who will be able to push hard for the protestors’ legal rights. Such complex issues require organization that may even require hierarchies, a structure the movement has thus far avoided.

And if the protestors do regroup, it will need leaders who know when to say when as winter approaches. That person may already exist in the figure of Kalle Lasn, the founder of AdBusters, the Canadian publication that came up with the movement. He issued a memo just hours before the police raid suggesting it might be time to scale back for the winter and regroup until the following spring. The group could ignore his call, as it has in the past, or it could follow similar directions from someone else. Either way, a sea of freezing and sick protestors in the midst of two feet of January New York snow—or more likely, a thin crowd due to frigid temperatures—could either turn public opinion against the movement or, worse, cause it to lose interest.

Who knows what will happen to Occupy Wall Street now that the city has raided the park and winter begins to set in. But if we’re still talking about the movement in the spring, I’d bet we’ll be talking about more people who are leading it, too.  

More from On Leadership:

What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements

Why Occupy wants nothing to do with our politicians

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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