So the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg – who happens to be a former Wall Street banker and the 12th most wealthy person in the US – has evicted the nucleus of the Occupy movement from Zucotti Park, where they had been camping for two months. In that process, the NYPD has not shunned violating constitutional rights, including the right to free speech and the right to protest, in addition to preventing the democratic press from doing its job. Books were burned.
This process is likely to repeat itself elsewhere. In the Netherlands, local politicians of the conservative liberal (and, arguably, banking-aligned) VVD party are demanding the exit of Occupy protesters from public places throughout the country. Public attention has declined. So what’s next for the Occupy movement?
In all honesty, personally, while I am very sympathetic to a vocal social movement addressing the immense wealth and especially political power of global financial institutions, the injustices in that sector (such as exorbitant bonuses, the sale of intransparent financial products, and the power of credit rating agencies to almost topple entire economies), and rising economic inequality, I had become a bit disappointed with the Occupy movement. During my (admittedly short) visit to Occupy Amsterdam, what I saw was a shanty town with a lot of pot smokers and squatters, talking vaguely about the need to discuss, not have any organization, etc.
Of course any movement that starts out from a feeling of discontent needs time to organize and formulate demands, but the point of Occupy seemed to be to disavow any kind of organization or concretization. Again: I very much admire proto-democratic experiments, and disagreed with the choir of commentators who kept blattering from the very beginning that it was unclear what Occupy was about (that’s very clear), but even a die-hard communal hippie has to admit that a certain point, you need organization and representation.
Occupy has historical predecessors way earlier than the Tahrir Square protesters. The early labour union movement in the nineteenth century everywhere started out grass-roots democratically; but during the way, they learned to organize, formulate demands, and still keep an internal democratic process. You need a distinction between principles and concrete demands, for instance; or a distinction between a general assembly and working groups; and people who specialize in tasks they’re good at (like creating leaflets, organizing, negotiating, doing practical stuff, etc.). In that way, you can develop from an inspired, resounding but vague movement to an organization that actually works.
Once again, I completely understand the distaste of Occupy protesters for “standard” kinds of political organizaton, like political parties and trade unions, and wouldn’t want them to develop in that way. But any movement that doesn’t develop further than a general assembly that discusses every tiny little detail doesn’t get very far (the meeting reports of Occupy Amsterdam attest to that). And now, public attention has declined, the authorities have zoomed in and it will probably not take long before the physical manifestion of Occupy on squares around the world disappears.
So what’s next for Occupy? Opinion polls are showing that they have struck a nerve – in the US, but I imagine also elsewhere, economic inequality and financial malpractices are on the agenda, and opposed by a majority of voters. In that sense, Occupy has already been a success. Some people are arguing that the forced removal of protesters from squares may re-ignite the movement (it would have been wiser for the authorities to wait for winter). Others are saying that the Occupiers need to penetrate existing movements and organizations to address their (and our!) concerns.
Personally, I would like a vocal and identifiable Occupy movement to remain in existence, get its act together, and start thinking about ways to reform the system while continuing to exert pressure on the political-financial axis. This could be done by spreading awareness (the big pro of this movement) and keep protesting, even occupying places. After all, the big invention of the Arab Spring was the protesting technique of permanently occupying a place, rather than having your average one-afternoon demonstration. However, it is essential (I think) to develop an organization, first to make sure that encampments aren’t turned into shantytowns, trouble makers are fended off, and violence doesn’t spread; second to develop ideas, demands and rallying points, appoint representatives, and create a more focused media outreach.
Will this happen? Probably not, but I hope so. The Tea Party has shown that you can move from a vague movement to something approaching a working organization. For Occupy as well, it’s probably time to move from subcultural self-expression to a fight for political change.
[The] truth is, Bloomberg might have just done Occupy Wall Street a favor. Next week, temperatures are projected to dip down to the high 30s. Next month, they’re projected to dip into the mid-20s. The month after that, as anyone who has experienced a New York winter know, they’re going to fall even lower.
The occupation of Zuccotti Park was always going to have a tough time enduring for much longer. As the initial excitement wore off and the cold crept in, only the diehards — and those with no place else to go — were likely to remain. The numbers in Zuccotti Park would thin, and so too would the media coverage. And in the event someone died of hypothermia, or there was some other disaster, that coverage could turn. What once looked like a powerful protest could come to be seen as a dangerous frivolity.
In aggressively clearing them from the park, Bloomberg spared them that fate. Zuccotti Park wasn’t emptied by weather, or the insufficient commitment of protesters. It was cleared by pepper spray and tear gas. It was cleared by police and authority. It was cleared by a billionaire mayor from Wall Street and a request by one of America’s largest commercial real estate developers. It was cleared, in other words, in a way that will temporarily reinvigorate the protesters and give Occupy Wall Street the best possible chance to become whatever it will become next.
The question is what, if anything, comes next for Occupy Wall Street. The movement has already scored some big wins. As this graph by Dylan Byers showed, they have changed the national conversation. Income inequality is now a top-tier issue. Before Occupy Wall Street, it wasn’t.
And perhaps that will be the legacy of Occupy Wall Street. That would certainly be more than most protests achieve. If they are to go further, however, they are going to have to figure out a way to wield power in a more direct and directed form. The movement has always been uncertain on whether it wants to do that, and if it does, how to do it. It requires a willingness to work with the system that is, in certain ways, inimical to the founding of Occupy Wall Street. The good news, if they choose to make that transition, is that they don’t need a park to do it. The bad news is that, in most cases, it requires more hierarchy, clearer leaders, a more obvious agenda.
Back in October, I asked Rich Yeselson, a union researcher and a scholar of social movements, what he thought Occupy Wall Street would need to do to survive and succeed. “Whether they will grow larger and sustain themselves beyond these initial street actions will depend upon four things,” Yeselson said. “The work of skilled organizers; the success of those organizers in getting people, once these events end, to meet over and over and over again; whether or not the movement can promote public policy solutions that are organically linked to the quotidian lives of its supporters; and the ability of liberalism’s infrastructure of intellectuals, writers, artists and professionals to expend an enormous amount of their cultural capital in support of the movement.”
I still think that’s right. So then: Can the post-Zuccotti Park incarnation of Occupy Wall Street furnish skilled organizers who are able to keep the protesters involved, come up with solutions — or at least problems — they’re willing to agree on and fight for, and attract the sort of media attention that they need if they’re going to be able to continue forcing their issues into the national conversation?
The odds are probably against it. The odds are against any social movement, always. But it’s probably likelier under these conditions, where the occupiers were cleared from the park all at once, under sympathetic conditions, and so all of them can agree that this is the moment in which to decide what comes next.
Thursday has been declared a day of “solidarity” with the Occupy Wall Street activists in New York after their camp in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park was raided and dismantled by police. But it is also aimed at highlighting several of the movement’s broader aims in terms of income inequality and a desperate need for job creation in America’s floundering economy.
The Occupy movement, which began two months ago with the occupation of Zuccotti Park, has since spread to scores of cities and towns across the country, with varying success. It has often rejuvenated left-leaning political activists but also brought down a heavy police response, frequently at the behest of city mayors.
In recent days, police evictions and crackdowns on protesters in New York, Seattle, Berkeley, Portland and other places have caused widespread condemnation of alleged heavy-handedness by police.
In New York, protesters are planning actions all day in each of the city’s five boroughs. A potential early flashpoint will be a rally planned to begin at 7am that will target Wall Street itself, as the protesters seek to disrupt the operations of the New York Stock Exchange before the ringing of the opening bell that signals the start of trading at 9.30am.
Since the protests began, Wall Street has become a virtual permanent protest zone, ringed by steel fences and heavily policed. Later actions are planned to take place across the city’s subway system, as marchers will enter at 16 different stations and begin protesting.
Finally, the day will end with a rally at Foley Square, near New York’s Town Hall, and then a march to the Brooklyn Bridge, where hundreds of protesters were arrested in a previous headline-grabbing mass action.
Bridges will be the focus of some actions in other cities too. In Boston, Detroit, Washington DC, Portland and Seattle, protesters, some allied with union workers and community groups, will march on high-profile bridges in order to highlight the problem of America’s crumbling and underfunded infrastructure.
The range of activities across America spans a spectrum from the dramatic to the small-scale, including teach-ins, rallies and direct actions aimed at banks and corporations. In Portland, Oregon, protesters plan to target a city bridge and then try to organise flashmobs to go to local banks. In Detroit, protesters are marching from their camp downtown to the city’s municipal centre, where they aim to highlight the brutal impact of government cuts on ordinary citizens.