How evictions could help — or hurt — Occupy Wall Street

at 11:26 AM ET, 11/15/2011

Early this morning, police in New York forcibly evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters from their encampment in Zuccotti Park.

The move followed Occupy evictions across the country. Over the past few days, they were removed from parks in Albany, Chapel Hill, Denver, Oakland, Portland and Salt Lake City. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who had previously been cooperative with protesters, said Sunday that “we’re re-evaluating our entire relationship.”

Liberal pundits are arguing that the evictions are a good thing — a dramatic, galvanizing end to a movement that would have petered out as the weather got colder. Coverage of Occupy Wall Street had faded. Now, it’s back in the headlines.


Occupy Wall Street protesters clash with police near Zuccotti Park after being ordered to leave their longtime encampment in New York, early Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (John Minchillo - AP)

On the local level that might be true — violent, unannounced crackdowns will likely not do much for the reputations of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.

But focusing too much on retaking those camps could keep Occupy Wall Street from growing into a more inclusive movement. Photos of protesters clashing with police over sleeping in parks rather than rallying for economic justice won’t help protesters give their movement political momentum.

“The initial idea was not an [indefinite] occupation of Zuccotti Park along with 300 other cities,” said one progressive source. “That wasn’t sustainable. This is the end of a stage.”

Instead, organizers could focus on targeted actions and marches that could lure sympathizers who didn’t have the freedom to camp out.

“People inspired by the occupiers have already begun to act in ways that do not have to do with holding territory,” said Dr. Michael Kazin, an expert on political movements at Georgeton University. He pointed to the recall of anti-collective bargaining legislation in Ohio as an example. “There’s some for whom this tactic is the end. There are others — who are probably more numerous — who understand that if you want change of a rather transformative type, you’re not going do it by just staying in a park.”

If protesters focus solely on re-occupying the parks from which they have been evicted, the movement might well alienate the many Americans who agree witht he movement’s message. As we’ve written, polls show Occupy’s message on the rising gap between rich and poor is a popular one. But recent surveys suggest that Occupy Wall Street itself has lost standing in the public view (although it’s still more popular than the tea party.)

Numerous Occupy camps were struggling with their own inclusiveness before the raids. Taking all comers meant dealing with “drummers, druggies, sexual harassers, racists, and anarchists” as Sara Robinson of the the liberal Campaign for America’s Future wrote recently.

In Oakland and other cities, “black bloc” anarchists destroyed property, making the whole movement look bad, but peaceful protesters struggled to police their own allies’ behavior.

Last week’s Ohio recall was successful in part because police and firefighters allied with Democrats against Gov. John Kasich (R). If Occupy becomes a fight between protesters and police, it will only limit its potential scope.

“This is going to explode now,” one New York protester told The Guardian. ”They don't realise what they've done.”

Explosion might be a good thing in the short term. But Occupy’s success has been in bringing economic populism back into the public discussion — not in protesting the right to sleep in parks.

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