Hibernation is Over: A Spring Preview for Occupy Wall Street
Last Saturday, a few hundred protesters staged a demonstration in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park to celebrate the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. It was almost like old times: chants, arrests, a notable instance of police brutality against a young woman, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg scoffing at the whole thing the day after. Occupy's back! But the next few weeks will be crucial to see if it's still got it.
You remember Occupy Wall Street, right? Leaderless movement, camping, marches, drum circles, The 99 Percent, etc., etc. Hasn't really been in the news lately. But if you ask a supporter where Occupy Wall Street went this winter, they'll invariably tell you "nowhere," as veteran Occupier Justin Wedes, a member of the OWS media team, told me on Monday.
After protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park in November, they moved indoors, where they have been meeting in churches, union halls, and public atriums, while staging smaller demonstrations around New York City and other cities throughout the country. And organizing, always organizing.
"I think that there's a convenient narrative which is, 'Occupy went underground,'" Wedes told me, "and that's completely false. All of the structures that existed in the park—in terms of the people structures, not the physical structures—continued to exist in some form, or in a modified form, outside of the park. They continued to meet at 60 Wall Street, or at different spaces around the city. They continued to keep doing what they were doing."
Last Saturday's protest, which ended with 73 arrests, marked the beginning of Occupy's bid for a spring resurgence. We'll know how Occupy weathered the winter by May 1: Occupy organizers have called for an ambitious general strike on May Day, where they hope to convince a critical mass of Americans to stay home from work.
"A lot of the focus right now is planning for the general strike," Wedes told me. "That's the big goal now."
The general strike has some very nice-looking posters, an active Twitter hashtag, #May1 (and who doesn't want an excuse to skip work?), but the prospects for a massive work stoppage are uncertain so far. Buzzfeed reports that unions aren't playing along. And the call for an Occupy general strike in Oakland in November didn't really work out. If the May 1 general strike fizzles out, Occupy might find it hard to rally the kinds of masses that mainstreamed the movement and its ideas last year.
So protesters now are busy building back the buzz that brought out crowds. At a new, small encampment in Union Square Park—informally renamed Solidarity Square—Occupiers tried to recapture the spirit of Zuccotti Park. When I stopped by on a Monday night, about 100 milled around under a big yellow Occupy Wall Street banner; a dozen were bundled up in blankets and said they were planning to spend the night.
"Does anyone need food?" asked a female protester under the banner.
"We always need food," said a man sitting next to a strangely purple (beet?) casserole in a tinfoil container. "We have a lot of dumpstered stuff, but nothing sustainable."
It was definitely a more hardcore crowd than what had become the norm in Zuccotti's heyday; the winter has burned away the fat of the movement. There were bearded socialists, crust punks, anarchists, and veteran Occupiers who had just gotten out of jail after Saturday's protest. Organizers are staging weekly "spring training" marches every Friday, as well as orientation days to rebuild their numbers in advance of the May 1 strike.
Still, a bald Russian guy named Recai Iskander with a live streaming camera strapped to his chest looked around Union Square park and complained to me about all the "warm weather Occupiers" who had come out now that the temperature had broken 60. He said he'd spent every day down at Zuccotti during the winter.
But an encampment like Zuccotti will likely not be the centerpiece of Occupy this time around—at least not in New York. The burgeoning Union Square encampment was dismantled, rather efficiently, by NYPD last night. Allowing protesters to make a home in Zuccotti was a huge tactical error by the NYPD, and I doubt they'll let something like that spring up again. Mayor Bloomberg has made his thoughts on dealing with illegal encampments cartoonishly clear.
"You want to get arrested?" he asked after Saturday's protest, where NYPD officers were described as "out of control" by a New York Daily News reporter. "We'll accommodate you."
Wedes imagines that the police's determination to crack down on encampments this spring might lead to a more dynamic form of protest.
"You're going to see a new flavor of direct actions," he said. "More spontaneous, more targeted at specific things, specific institutions, More mobile and more decentralized."
In the end, the NYPD's zeal might help the movement—it really took off after last fall's pepper spray video, after all. And Wedes says Occupy is shifting focus to entrenching itself in local communities, rather than taking over public spaces.
However they do it, Occupy needs an influx of new energy. The movement never went away, but at points this winter it seemed to disappear into its own internal divisions. The role of the Black Bloc in OWS—a tactic that has protesters don masks and hoodies and sometimes smash stuff—sparked a smackdown between two respected radical thinkers and OWS supporters, journalist Chris Hedges and the anthropologist David Graeber. Indoor meetings of the Spokes Council in New York, one of Occupy's two main coordinating bodies, have repeatedly descended into chaos, and in January a physical fight broke out over some unidentified disagreement.
And over the winter a tinge of paranoia has threatened the transparency that has been Occupy's greatest strength, no doubt propelled by an oppressive surveillance campaign waged by the NYPD. Tim Pool, a live streamer who has tirelessly documented the protests for his TimCast channel, was attacked by a masked protester in January and accused of being a "snitch." One newish Occupy associate complained to me that he had trouble winning the trust of other protesters because they thought he was an undercover cop.
But now it's spring, and Occupy can stretch its legs. We're going to see a few weeks of dramatic actions, as Occupy tries to capitalize on a winter of organizing to reassert itself as the force that brought thousands over the Brooklyn Bridge in October. Whether anyone else will care enough to join them on May 1 is still very much an open question.