How Occupy Wall Street must adapt its strategy after the Zuccotti Park eviction

They've lost their space, but not their momentum

After teetering for weeks between his quarrelling impulses — protect civil liberties or clean up Zuccotti Park? — Mayor Bloomberg sent in hundreds of officers early Tuesday morning to smash up tents and possessions, drive out the campers and keep most reporters out.

And after the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) challenged the police action, a judge affirmed the city’s eviction — meaning that, for now, the group no longer has the right to sleep in that downtown plaza. This might seem like a setback for Occupy Wall Street, but the truth is much more complex.

Bloomberg’s timing in ordering the removal was probably not random. Occupy Wall Street had announced that it wanted to “shut down Wall Street” Thursday morning. The mayor might have thought that clearing the camp would throw Occupy into such disarray it would forestall an ugly confrontation near the New York Stock Exchange.

If so, that was short-term thinking. Even as the thermometer sinks, Occupy Wall Street’s psychic temperature rises. Even supporters who didn’t feel at home in the park resent the forced clearance and will now turn out in larger numbers. The mayor may even have heightened the risk of more violent confrontations.

As I write, the Zuccotti exiles are trying to figure out where to recamp, and recamp many of them surely will. Odds are, a critical mass will find other more-or-less public encampments for their community meetings, if not for sleeping. To keep up the territorial symbolism, they don’t need to reach the scale of the original Zuccotti. They only need to be visible as centres of community and, not least, lures for the media eye.

Tactical changes already afoot will likely accelerate. OWS was already evolving and the movement was, and remains, a lot bigger than the Zuccotti Park’s half-acre. Spin-off groups — some official, some semi-official, some not official at all — were already organizing direct actions elsewhere around the city, such as demonstrations at bank branches, foreclosure hearings and subway stations. Moveon.org Civic Action, which embraces OWS, had already planned a march for Thursday — one of 300 such actions nationwide that they claim to be in the works that day — from Foley Square to the Brooklyn Bridge, surely New York City’s most beautiful piece of infrastructure in need of the sort of rehab work that the Republicans look forward to making harder to finance.

Even before the dispersal and the arrests, Zuccotti and other encampments contained only a small minority of those who identify with the Occupy movement. Much bigger numbers — union members, professional and student groups, people coming from work, passersby, friendly tourists — turned out for the more expansive “We are the 99%” protests. The encampments mean something symbolically, to be sure, but forced clearance is unlikely to make these millions of supporters feel any friendlier toward Citigroup, Goldman Sachs or Mayor Bloomberg.

However, two traps open up for the movement now. The first would be to become preoccupied with police brutality. It’s an old trap, familiar from the late ’60s, when many student radicals thought that the most reliable way in which hitherto undeclared students became “radicalized” was with the slam of a cop’s baton. Since videos of harsh police tactics are in 24/7 circulation (as previously in Oakland), it’s tempting to focus on the immediate outrage.

The emotions are understandable, spiky, immediate and adrenaline-infused. But while of course deploring attacks on their civil liberties (whatever happened to “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”?), the movement would be well-advised to keep its eyes on the prize. Let the ACLU and liberal politicians defend their (and everyone else’s) legal rights; it’s their business, and bless them for it. The OWS movement has to remain visible as the voice of “the 99%.”

Secondly, the occupiers must understand that the odds of violent, vengeful outbursts at the edges of the movement have now gone up, even as the overwhelming majority of the movement’s activists and supporters adhere rigorously to nonviolence. Not only some revolutionists but agents provocateurs like to stir up days of rage, heedless of (or worse, cynical about) the fact that vandalism and other sorts of physical violence drive wedges between the protesters and the larger population who like the sound of Occupy’s main slogans even if they don’t like the cut of their beards or the beat of their drums.

So the movement will need to work out contingency plans for minimizing the danger of violent hijack. At the same time it faces, no less than before, the problem of how to relate to the onrushing election year. These are delicate times — as were inevitably going to befall a movement that aims to overcome and reverse the decades of economic damage done by allied oligarchs and governments.

 

Also published in NY Daily News.

About the author

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also published in an expanded edition, in paperback, in August, 2012 (HarperCollins).