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What Future for Occupy Wall Street?

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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Occupy Wall Street protesters entering a vacant lot on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue owned by Trinity Church, New York City, December 17, 2011

Less than a week after the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, Occupy Wall Street protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park across the street from the site that had become known by the military phrase “Ground Zero.” Construction was in full swing: the replacement towers were already visible on the skyline and the 9/11 Memorial had just opened to the public. Among the potent effects of the protest was the almost immediate sense that it marked the end of a depleting decade whose misfortunes seemed to have begun on that very street—a decade that included two failed wars, ruinous displays of corporate malfeasance, the worst economic recession in seventy-eight years, and unsustainable budget deficits partly as a result of tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens that seemed to embarrass even some who benefited most from them.

During the next couple of weeks a number of reports were published substantiating the protesters’ message of rampant economic injustice. A USA Today/Gallup Poll of October 15–16 found that 44 percent of Americans feel the economic system is personally unfair to them. In a telephone interview the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, somewhat stunned by the figure, told me that “when that number reaches 25 percent most governments begin to worry.” Just as startling was a study from the Economic Policy Institute showing that the top 1 percent of Americans possess a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent—if 90 percent of anything can be considered the “bottom.” Less surprising is the fact that the OECD ranks the United States roughly on a level with Mexico, Chile, and Turkey in overall poverty, child poverty, and health care. The system’s inability to deliver had, it was clear, extended to large portions of the middle class.

In light of these facts, Occupy Wall Street’s expansion to many other cities seems to have been preordained, but at the time it caught even its most committed supporters off guard. It was as if something fundamental had been unmasked, and the grievances that an increasing number of people had been uttering in private for years were suddenly made public.

By mid-October, according to a Brookings Institution survey, 54 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the protest. Suddenly, or so it seemed, there was less talk of budget cuts that would limit, if not dismantle, social insurance programs such as Medicare while extending Bush’s tax cuts, and more talk about how to deal with economic inequality.

Several events pointed to an altered political climate. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo partially reversed his opposition to extending the so-called millionaire’s tax, pushing through legislation for a higher tax rate for the wealthiest New Yorkers. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase abandoned plans to charge a monthly fee to use their debit cards after an outpouring of indignation from customers—a minor event in the larger picture, but indicative of the public’s rapidly shifting mood.

More significantly, in Ohio 61 percent of voters rejected a referendum favored by Republican Governor John Kasich that would have severely restricted the collective bargaining rights of 360,000 public employees. And in Osawatomie, Kansas, on December 6, President Obama gave a speech that echoed almost verbatim what I had been hearing from protesters in Zuccotti Park. Obama deplored “the breathtaking greed of a few” and called the aim to “restore fairness” the “defining issue of our time.”

Nevertheless, as Occupy Wall Street enters its fifth month, dislodged from most of the public spaces it had staked out around the country last fall, the movement seems weakened, its future uncertain. It sometimes appears to be driven by a series of tactics designed to maintain its public presence with no discernible strategy or goal—a kind of muddled, loose-themed ubiquity. The movement has proven adept at provoking media attention, but one may wonder what it amounts to, apart from its ability to reaffirm its status as a kind of protest brand name.

Some core organizers are painfully aware of the situation. “When I step out of the Occupy bubble, I discover that people have no coherent idea of who we are. They think we’re a bunch of angry kids,” Katie Davison told me. Amin Husain, a graduate of Columbia Law School who worked eighteen hours a day in corporate financing and property law before quitting to devote himself to the movement full time, expressed frustration at the fact that people were having trouble “grasping what we stand for.”1

Part of the reason was that members of the movement were improvising as they went along, with equal weight given, theoretically at least, to the voice of each participant. After they were forced out of the open, free-flowing nerve center of Zuccotti Park and the other encampments, organizers resorted to staging an ever-changing series of “flash occupations, temporary revolutionary zones,” as an activist put it to me, that would “transform” a public space and then quickly disperse to form someplace else tomorrow or the next day.2

On December 1, for instance, protesters gathered in front of Lincoln Center to await the end of the final performance of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, about the life of Gandhi. The idea was to dramatize their affinity with Gandhi’s method of nonviolent resistance. The following day, occupiers launched twenty-four hours of dance, “radical theater,” and “creative resistance” near Times Square meant “to educate tourists and theater-goers about OWS” and to demonstrate “a more colorful image of what our streets could look like.” December 6 was the day to “reclaim” selected bank-owned vacant homes in poor neighborhoods, reinstalling a handful of willing families that had been foreclosed upon and evicted. On December 12 there was a march on Goldman Sachs’s offices in Manhattan. On December 16 there was a rally at Fort Meade in Maryland where Private Bradley Manning, a hero to the movement, was standing trial for allegedly releasing classified government documents to WikiLeaks. The next day, more rallies were scheduled in New York and elsewhere, this time for immigrants’ rights. And so on.

Most of these actions were skillfully planned, carried through with the movement’s blend of indignation and antic good cheer. Some, like the reclaiming of foreclosed homes, were powerfully symbolic. But taken together they seemed to add to a growing confusion about Occupy Wall Street’s direction.

The police, in full riot gear, showed up at every action—they have caught on to the online flash mob techniques that previously kept activists a step ahead. Protesters now found themselves crammed together like netted fish wherever they turned; some appealed to police as fellow members of the 99 percent, some cursed them as mercenaries employed by a criminal army. The police seemed by turns to be bored, enraged, ambivalent, and exhausted. Often their presence felt more like a tactic than a legal necessity, as if they were there not to uphold order but to demoralize protesters (who were almost invariably peaceful) and wear them down.

Lately, the contest has entered a new phase, with police pushing reporters aside, and sometimes arresting them before a crackdown, in order to avoid a repetition of the kind of scenes of brutality that propelled the movement’s rise when they appeared on YouTube. When police evicted protesters from Zuccotti Park on November 15, journalists, as The New York Times reported, were “herded into a pen out of sight and sound” of the action. At least twenty reporters were arrested, and a CBS News helicopter was ordered to leave the airspace above the park. At a demonstration on December 17 more reporters were handcuffed and arrested. And on New Year’s Eve journalists were physically harassed while trying to cover a protest.

Protesters have paid a considerable price. An earnest, rather mild librarian from North Dakota named Jeremy was bewildered and frightened to have been charged with assaulting an officer—a felony—after police tackled him during a demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange on November 17. “The cop said that when he swung at me he injured his finger.” For weeks a police satellite truck was parked in front of Katie Davison’s apartment building, apparently monitoring people who came to see her. On November 15, hours after protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park, one of her visitors, Amin Husain, was surrounded and beaten by five policemen without provocation. Husain had never been arrested before.

The crackdowns scare away less hard-core supporters. Actions now routinely involve a diminishing group of three hundred to five hundred demonstrators or less. Some activists I spoke with preferred the smaller, more concentrated quality of the actions, partly, I suspect, because it gave them the elevated feeling of being the street fighters, the incorruptible ones, the keepers of what is pure. Skirmishes with police could be seen as proof that they were a bona fide threat to the system.

We’re about guerrilla strategy,” an activist told me, “poking holes and retreating. Few revolutions have avoided bloodshed. Our challenge is how to make nonviolence effective.” One of his ideas was to pitch pup tents in parks, bank lobbies, atriums, and plazas. “We fill the tents with cement, a symbol of our permanence, a message to police that we’re not so easy to dislodge.” Under his arm was a book called Military Strategy by John Collins, a kind of primer on the art of war with a blurb on the back cover from General Anthony Zinni, former chief of US Central Command.

There is a persistent anxiety within the movement of being “co-opted” by potential allies—the word crops up frequently in conversation. The country’s largest labor unions were among the earliest supporters of Occupy Wall Street, donating money and space. The movement’s two most impressive marches by far—in Foley Square on October 5 and November 17—were largely made possible by the teachers, communications workers, and hospital employees who showed up in significant numbers at their unions’ behest.

Yet a wariness of organized labor’s hierarchical structures and establishment contacts has prevented a deeper alliance. Overtures from left-leaning factions of the Democratic Party have been met with similar resistance. The open nature of the general assemblies and working groups, it was feared, made the movement vulnerable to takeover by such groups, though there seemed to be little evidence that any such takeover was in the works. Many demonstrators argued, in effect, that the integrity of the fledgling anarchist experiment must be protected at all costs.

Occupy Wall Street had succeeded, after all, where the “old left”—afraid of damaging Obama, and meekly plodding on—had failed in recent years. Traditional liberals, its members said, didn’t understand the particular generational impulses behind the movement, its new way of protesting and—here was the central point—of making people feel listened to and heard. Still, despite the large number of sympathizers it had gained, the movement, after being expelled from Zuccotti Park, seemed in danger of remaining more or less what it had been in September—a group of freelance activists with no reliable power base or allies.

  1. 1

    For a portrait of Katie Davison and other OWS organizers see my essay ” Zuccotti Park: What Future?,” The New York Review, December 8, 2011. 

  2. 2

    As this article went to press, the police barricades that had restricted access to Zuccotti Park since November 15 were removed, after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint saying they were “a violation of city zoning laws.” Protesters immediately “reclaimed” the park. But for the moment the change was primarily aesthetic: police and security guards for Brookfield Properties, owners of the park, continued to enforce rules prohibiting tents, sleeping bags, or even lying down. 

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