Did Bloomberg do Occupy Wall Street a favor?
At about 1 a.m. Tuesday morning, hundreds of New York City police officers raided Zuccotti Park. Police tore down tents and, according to witnesses, used tear gas, pepper spray, and at about 3 a.m., a sound cannon. Some of the protesters left immediately, quietly. Some of them joined together in the middle of the park, chanting, “Whose park? Our park!”
Police ultimately made 70 arrests and cleared the area. Their park.
In a statement released a few hours ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg* explained the raid. “I have become increasingly concerned – as had the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties – that the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protestors and to the surrounding community. We have been in constant contact with Brookfield and yesterday they requested that the City assist it in enforcing the no sleeping and camping rules in the park. But make no mistake – the final decision to act was mine.”
Members of Occupy Wall Street are furious. Protests are being planned at various sites throughout the day. But the truth is, Bloomberg might have just done Occupy Wall Street a favor.
Next week, temperatures are projected to dip down to the high 30s. Next month, they’re projected to dip into the mid-20s. The month after that, as anyone who has experienced a New York winter know, they’re going to fall even lower.
The occupation of Zuccotti Park was always going to have a tough time enduring for much longer. As the initial excitement wore off and the cold crept in, only the diehards -- and those with no place else to go -- were likely to remain. The numbers in Zuccotti Park would thin, and so too would the media coverage. And in the event someone died of hypothermia, or there was some other disaster, that coverage could turn. What once looked like a powerful protest could come to be seen as a dangerous frivolity.
In aggressively clearing them from the park, Bloomberg spared them that fate. Zuccotti Park wasn’t emptied by weather, or the insufficient commitment of protesters. It was cleared by pepper spray and tear gas. It was cleared by police and authority. It was cleared by a billionaire mayor from Wall Street and a request by one of America’s largest commercial real estate developers. It was cleared, in other words, in a way that will temporarily reinvigorate the protesters and give Occupy Wall Street the best possible chance to become whatever it will become next.
The question is what, if anything, comes next for Occupy Wall Street. The movement has already scored some big wins. As this graph by Dylan Byers showed, they have changed the national conversation. Income inequality is now a top-tier issue. Before Occupy Wall Street, it wasn’t.
And perhaps that will be the legacy of Occupy Wall Street. That would certainly be more than most protests achieve. If they are to go further, however, they are going to have to figure out a way to wield power in a more direct and directed form. The movement has always been uncertain on whether it wants to do that, and if it does, how to do it. It requires a willingness to work with the system that is, in certain ways, inimical to the founding of Occupy Wall Street. The good news, if they choose to make that transition, is that they don’t need a park to do it. The bad news is that, in most cases, it requires more hierarchy, clearer leaders, a more obvious agenda.
Back in October, I asked Rich Yeselson, a union researcher and a scholar of social movements, what he thought Occupy Wall Street would need to do to survive and succeed. “Whether they will grow larger and sustain themselves beyond these initial street actions will depend upon four things,” Yeselson said. “The work of skilled organizers; the success of those organizers in getting people, once these events end, to meet over and over and over again; whether or not the movement can promote public policy solutions that are organically linked to the quotidian lives of its supporters; and the ability of liberalism’s infrastructure of intellectuals, writers, artists and professionals to expend an enormous amount of their cultural capital in support of the movement.”
I still think that’s right. So then: Can the post-Zuccotti Park incarnation of Occupy Wall Street furnish skilled organizers who are able to keep the protesters involved, come up with solutions -- or at least problems -- they’re willing to agree on and fight for, and attract the sort of media attention that they need if they’re going to be able to continue forcing their issues into the national conversation?
The odds are probably against it. The odds are against any social movement, always. But it’s probably likelier under these conditions, where the occupiers were cleared from the park all at once, under sympathetic conditions, and so all of them can agree that this is the moment in which to decide what comes next.
Update from the Associated Press: “The National Lawyers Guild says it has obtained a court that allows Occupy Wall St. protesters to return with tents to a New York City park. The guild says the injunction prevents the city from enforcing park rules on Occupy Wall Street protesters.” More here.
*Disclaimer: I’m a columnist for the opinion section of Bloomberg News.