the Occupy movement and discusses alternative strategies it might pursue now that the authorities are closing down the occupations.
November 15, 2011
Beyond Seizing Parks, New Paths to Influence
By CARA BUCKLEY
The anti-Wall Street protests, which are being driven from their urban encampments across the nation, now face a pivotal challenge: With their outposts gone, will their movement wither?
In New York, where the police temporarily evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park early Tuesday, and in other cities, dozens of organizers maintained that the movement had already reshaped the public debate. They said it no longer needed to rely solely on seizing parks, demonstrating in front of the homes of billionaires or performing other acts of street theater.
They said they were already trying to broaden their influence, for instance by deepening their involvement in community groups and spearheading more of what they described as direct actions, like withdrawing money from banks, and were considering supporting like-minded political candidates.
Still, some acknowledged that the crackdowns by the authorities in New York and other cities might ultimately benefit the movement, which may have become too fixated on retaining the territorial footholds, they said.
“We poured a tremendous amount of resources into defending a park that was nearly symbolic,” said Han Shan, an Occupy Wall Street activist in New York. “I think the movement has shown it transcends geography.”
Even before the police descended on Zuccotti Park overnight, some early proponents of Occupy Wall Street had begun suggesting that it was time to move on.
On Monday, Adbusters, the Canadian anti-corporate magazine that conceived of the movement, indicated that the protesters should “declare victory” and head indoors to strategize.
Marina Sitrin, a postdoctoral fellow at the City University of New York who is involved in the movement, said its influence would continue to ripple out. People are already assembling to address local issues in Harlem and Brooklyn, she said. “There’s so much more than Zuccotti Park,” she said.
Indeed, with winter looming, it seemed possible that Occupy Wall Street’s encampment would end on its own as the cold drove people away.
Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said New York City officials might have done Occupy Wall Street a favor “by providing a dramatic ending.”
In New York and around the country, the news media had begun highlighting less savory aspects of the occupations, including drug use, crime and influxes of homeless people who were not motivated by ideology, which could change the message from “we are the 99 percent” to “we are urban pathology,” Professor Isserman said.
“And suddenly, with a stroke, that’s no longer the problem or the issue,” he said, referring to the evictions.
Still, questions endure about whether, without Zuccotti Park, the movement might lose momentum or drift into irrelevancy.
Doug McAdam, a sociology professor at Stanford, predicted that the energy could quickly dissipate without the occupation. “The focal point will be lost,” he said.
The protesters did return to the park later Tuesday, with the city’s permission, but without the prohibited tents, tarps and sleeping bags that carried them through so many nights.
“Occupy Wall Street can only grow,” said Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for the group.
The organizers continue to claim public support. Donations topped half a million dollars weeks ago, and their storehouse, blocks away from the park in Lower Manhattan, is stuffed with nonperishables, blankets and other supplies sent from around the world.
One question is how protesters in other cities will react to the events in New York this week. Some experts wondered whether reduced visibility for Occupy Wall Street might hurt support for the cause elsewhere.
In interviews, protesters on Tuesday dismissed such speculation, saying that the clearing of Zuccotti Park would energize their commitment to seeking more regulation of the financial industry and reducing economic inequality.
“Whenever there is pushback, especially under cover of darkness, I think it will make us stronger,” said Dan Massoglia, a spokesman for Occupy Chicago.
In Oakland, Calif., Alexandra Hernandez, 22, said recent arrests of Occupy protesters across the country showed that it might be time for a shift in strategy. “I don’t know if the encampments will continue,” she said.
Officials will be watching closely. The authorities have now cracked down on camps in Denver, Oakland, Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City.
Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, said the United States Conference of Mayors had organized two conference calls “to share information about the occupying encampments around the country.” He said participants on the calls were eager for advice on how cities were handling demonstrations.
William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution, said Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots were grappling with what many new movements face. “What do you do for an encore when you’ve gotten people’s attention?” he said.
While grass-roots movements influenced many major social changes in the United States in the last century, Dr. Galston said that after they garnered attention, they invariably moved on to concrete demands, which the Occupy Wall Street effort has been criticized for lacking. The Tea Party, for example, has sought to repeal President Obama’s health care law.
It is apparent, though, that Occupy Wall Street’s impact is already being felt.
Union officials said the movement was a factor last week when Ohio residents voted overwhelmingly to repeal a state law limiting the collective bargaining rights of public workers.
“They helped define what it was that was going on, and gave people a sense that you can do something about it,” said Damon Silvers, the policy director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Less certain is the movement’s impact on party politics. The protests took off just as Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats began trying to push Republicans to agree to a so-called millionaire’s tax. Some Democrats cautiously embraced the movement for raising the issue of income inequality, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started a petition drive that it called “100,000 Strong Standing With Occupy Wall Street.”
Last month, after the Congressional Budget Office reported that the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s income over the last three decades, Mr. Obama used his weekly radio address to discuss the report and income inequality, saying that the middle class was under pressure.
Some Republicans, including presidential candidates, have sought to portray Occupy Wall Street protesters as a band of far-left rabble-rousers.
All of which indicates that the protesters’ message has trickled up, despite their tendency to reject the major political parties, analysts said.
Dr. Galston predicted that though protesters across the country were being pushed out of their encampments, their issues would endure.
“The underlying reality to which the movement has called attention is too big, too pervasive, too important to go away,” he said.