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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.

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Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Protesters and policemen at Zuccotti Park, January 11, 2012

Jackie DiSalvo, Occupy Wall Street’s labor expert, felt that after the encampment in Zuccotti Park was uprooted “a set of demands was needed, to define the movement to itself, to bind it together.” One demand DiSalvo would like to see is for a WPA-like jobs project funded by taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. “But I know it would never pass the General Assembly,” she said, referring to the informal body comprised of anyone who showed up that made decisions in Zuccotti Park. She also hoped that OWS would run candidates in 2012, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But again, she admitted, “OWS would never endorse them.”

In October, a “Demands Group” did spring up among the protesters. When members of the group went public with a few suggestions, the General Assembly attempted to vote them out of existence and by some accounts succeeded. Today, a version of the group exists with 410 members who, according to the movement’s website, are “developing the concept of demands” (italics mine). Instead of debating actual demands, they are asking how a group “can create a process where their wants & needs can be communicated.”

I discussed with some organizers the recent efforts of environmentalist groups to stop the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry sand tar oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. According to leading climate scientists, the oil, which is exceptionally dirty, would release a huge amount of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, with disastrous results. Environmentalists have waged a highly disciplined campaign against the pipeline, including acts of civil disobedience that culminated in the arrest of more than a thousand protesters in front of the White House in August.

Unlike OWS, the environmentalist movement has been around for decades, with well-funded organizations, a base of well-to-do donors, and a large bloc of voters who campaign for or against politicians according to their positions on the environment. Bill McKibben, a leader of the Keystone protest, was able to meet with a senior White House adviser in November. Shortly thereafter Obama promised to delay any decision about the pipeline until its environmental impact had been more thoroughly studied.

The protest over the pipeline seemed to be an example of how civil disobedience combined with old-fashioned organizational politics and specific demands could influence policy. Still, in December, Republicans, wishing to fast-track the project, attached it to an eleventh-hour bill to extend a payroll tax cut that the Democrats were eager to pass.

The bill went through, giving Obama—who, because the pipeline crosses an international border, has ultimate authority to approve or cancel the project—only sixty days to decide. He has since indicated that it will likely be canceled. To some of the people I spoke with at Occupy Wall Street, this episode revealed the futility of “playing the demands game.” After months of hard work and putting bodies on the line, you get used as a bargaining chip in some cynical political showdown. The problem, they said, was systemic and couldn’t be addressed one issue at a time. McKibben, an ardent supporter of OWS, didn’t disagree. What he admires most about OWS, he told me, “is the education they are doing about the extent of corporate power in government. We can’t fight every pipeline. What’s needed is a change of political consciousness.” In fact, a new pipeline is still in question.

When I asked Amin and Katie what Occupy Wall Street’s ultimate goal was, they said, “A government accountable to the people, freed up from corporate influence.” It seemed that this pointed to a simple, single demand, something that many in the movement had been seeking since September: a campaign finance law that would ban private contributions and restrict candidates to the use of public money. Several detailed proposals for such a law already existed, including one from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig that, though imperfect, would attack, in Lessig’s words, “the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first.”3

As I spoke, I could sense the impatience of my listeners. I wasn’t getting the point. Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street’s principles. Katie maintained that Occupy Wall Street didn’t yet have “a broad enough base” to make such a demand with any reasonable expectation that it could be met. And Amin said, “It doesn’t matter what particular laws you pass. We’re not about laws.” They saw themselves as a counterculture; and to continue to survive as such they had to remain uncontaminated by the culture they opposed.

But in what capacity would they survive? During the time they held Zuccotti Park, the movement had been able to expand on its own terms. The park had been an ongoing, live-action, twenty-four-hours-a-day spectacle, a model village—or a state within the state, as protesters preferred to think of it—like the exhibits of the future one used to visit at the World’s Fair. People would come off the street, from Idaho or Europe, get drawn into a debate, become involved.

Organizers described Occupy Wall Street as “a way of being,” of “sharing your life together in assembly.” To participate fully in its process of “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based” democracy, you had to make the movement a central part of your existence. For many, this posed an insurmountable problem. A social worker and single mother with little free time told me that she had given up trying to join Occupy Wall Street because she couldn’t figure out how to do so “without hanging out with them all the time.” The ambitions of the core group of activists were more cultural than political, in the sense that they sought to influence the way people think about their lives. “Ours is a transformational movement,” Amin told me with a solemn air. Transformation had to occur face to face; what it offered, especially to the young, was an antidote to the empty gaze of the screen.

In meetings and elsewhere, this Tolstoyan experience of undergoing a personal crisis of meaning, both political and of the soul, seemed deeply shared. Apart from Amin, I’ve met an architect, a film editor, an advertising consultant, an unemployed stock trader, a spattering of lawyers, and people with various other jobs who, after joining OWS, found themselves psychologically unable to go about their lives as before. For weeks last fall, gatherings on the eastern steps of Zuccotti Park had the aura of a revivalist meeting.

This may explain why some members of the clergy are so attracted to Occupy Wall Street. Michael Ellick, the minister at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, said that when he first visited Zuccotti Park he was reminded of his years at a monastery. “When people enter a monastery, they don’t know why they’ve come,” said Ellick. “They are there to find out why they are there, why they were compelled to leave the other world. You figure it out together, you take a mike check, and this is how faith comes to you.” He opened the doors of his church to the demonstrators. John Merz, an Episcopal priest at Ascension Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, likened Occupy Wall Street to early Christianity, which was “born as a public movement, in public space, a series of spontaneous gatherings.”

In an effort to regain a public space of dissent, activists, with the support of like-minded members of the clergy who had organized themselves into a group called “Occupy Faith,” planned in December to set up camp in a vacant lot on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. The lot was owned by Trinity Church, the historic Episcopal church located a block south of Zuccotti Park and, as it happens, one of the largest landowners in New York City. The church had lent a cautious measure of support to the occupiers when they were camped in Zuccotti Park, giving them the use of a community center Trinity owns and other much-needed amenities. But it was refusing them access to the Canal Street lot.

Organizers tried to pressure Trinity’s rector, Jim Cooper, into changing his mind. Desmond Tutu, writing from South Africa, and acknowledging the “consistent” support Trinity gave to him and the anti-apartheid movement,4 urged the church to “rearrange” its affairs “for justice sake.” He added, “Just as history watched as South Africa was reborn in promise and fairness so it is watching you now.” (Later, Tutu sent another message, making if clear that he was not endorsing the breaking of laws.) Protesters also managed to gain support from members of the local community board, which was reviewing rezoning approval for a residential tower Trinity was hoping to build on the lot. One board member implied that he would use the rezoning review against Trinity.

The pressure didn’t work. On December 17 a few hundred protesters showed up at the Canal Street site as planned, carrying sleeping bags to prepare to spend the night. A regiment of policemen tightly hemmed them in, dogging them as they set out on futile circular marches through the neighborhood. Forty or fifty people, including a retired bishop, climbed a ladder over the fence and into the lot and were duly arrested.

Afterward, there was a feeling of disappointment and false cheer as protesters milled about in the cold. Trinity Church seemed a misguided target, no matter its wealth. “Something has to happen, whether we occupy or not,” said a protester. Much of the remaining group headed to Jim Cooper’s apartment building, a few blocks away. “He won’t let us in his lot, we’ll see how he feels when we’re in front of his house.” Cooper gave no sign of any reaction.

I ran into Jeremy, the librarian from North Dakota, who wondered whether “getting locked up all the time really helps us.” He was instead looking forward to working on the theoretical aspects of the movement. Something new was being created, he believed, something enduring. Things would pick up again in the spring; now was a time to strategize, to take stock.

Some of the Occupy Wall Street members told me that they hope to emulate the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was able to pose a clear moral question. In 1961, only 28 percent of Americans approved of sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom buses as a way to end segregation. Over the next seven years and more, because of the civil rights movement, Americans had to ask themselves whether official, overt racism could be tolerated.

If Occupy Wall Street is to become the embodiment of public conscience, it will have to pose similar questions that defy moral evasiveness and make people urgently ask, for example, what degree of inequality and what forms of corporate influence on government will be tolerated. The problem for protesters is that while severely limiting corporate power in government is a worthy goal, it’s morally abstract, with little visceral impact. And economic justice is a vague and sweeping term that invites both personal grievances and broad interpretation. Economic equality and economic justice can reasonably be seen as two different matters.

Still, what seemed business as usual only four months ago no longer is so. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that for the first time more people under the age of thirty view socialism positively than view capitalism positively—49 to 46 percent—although what they meant by socialism was not clearly defined. It seems possible that the wars and recessions of the past decade have given rise to a politicized generation that will have, over the coming years, a lasting effect on the country. The months leading up to the 2012 presidential election this fall will most likely tell us more about what that effect will be. So far, Occupy Wall Street has proven to be a resourceful and unpredictable movement. But there’s no assurance of what form the uprisings many now hope for will take, or even if they will happen at all.

—January 12, 2012

  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. 

  3. 3

    See Lessig, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (Twelve, 2011). 

  4. 4

    Trinity has a history of giving financial support to a variety of Anglican churches and causes in Africa. See www.trinitywallstreet.org/action/grants/approved. 

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