Wednesday, December 21, 2011

After Evictions Does Occupy Really Need to Occupy?

The first Occupy Wall Street encampment began September 17 with a few dozen protesters rolling out sleeping bags in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan. Since then Occupy movements have sprung up in cities in every part of the United States, all securing encampments in public parks to serve as meeting places, staging grounds, and symbolic homes to this nascent, nonviolent revolution. Fast on the heels of the first tent on public space, however, was heightened police presence, posturing from myriad mayors' offices and eventually eviction of the peaceably assembled protesters.

In the national narrative Occupy survived eviction, re-occupation, and re-eviction in various cities from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco to Chicago to Boston to, famously, Oakland, et al, but through it all it seemed as though as long as the first encampment at Zuccotti Park - redubbed Liberty Park - stood then Occupy still had a space to thrive. Indeed, at first it seemed that the New York movement would have an easier time standing up to mayoral pressure since Liberty Park was one of New York City's many privately owned public spaces*. Eventually though, on November 16th, even this encampment proved vulnerable and in an early morning raid police cleared the park, leading to the arrest of several protesters, severe property damage - including the destruction of several laptops and several thousand books - and the arrests of many protesters and journalists.

Since then Occupy has taken on a more ephemeral feeling and many writers and pundits have questioned whether there is a need for such a public occupation at all. Some have written that Bloomberg did Occupy a favor by evicting them in such a forceful, tone-deaf, media-savaging manner since the group would have been hard-pressed to stay through the winter anyway and being forced from the park - rather than having to abandon it - leaves the group with moral high ground and public sympathy.

Others have pointed to recent direct actions as a metamorphosis into an Occupy 2.0 guerilla movement that eschews the need for public space and instead seeks loud, public confrontation with those it rails against.

The Mic Check, for example, is something I've found to be quite a powerful symbolic tool to speak truth to power in a way that shatters the bubble most politicians tend to live in, and gains publicity at the same time. Taking a queue from the "People's Mic", a method of amplification taken up because megaphones were outlawed by police in the early days of the protests which involves a group of people repeating the words of an initial speaker for greater volume, Occupy supporters across the country have taken to infiltrating speaking engagements of prominent politicians and hijacking the conversation to bluntly voice their concerns. The first instance I'm aware of occurred when a group in Wisconsin Checked a speech by Governor Scott Walker, but this has since spread like wildfire. The CEO of Wells Fargo, GOP Presidential candidates Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, and even President Obama himself have all been targets.

This is a particularly powerful device for two reasons. First, the kinds of rallies in which these occur are usually safe affairs, populated by supporters in which the speaker in question rarely expects any kind of challenge. These events have become bland soap boxes that serve as platforms to shout sound-bytes that may or may not be cogent, and may or may not (usually not) speak honestly to the problems the country currently faces. I love that Occupy is forcing these public figures into uncomfortably facing the consequences of their politically calculated decisions. Second, this kind of immediate confrontation, while rarely ever addressed at the time, serves as a powerful way to contrast the shortfalls of the country with the political theater that rarely seeks to address these shortfalls. Once these clips hit YouTube they serve as a striking expression of frustration on the part of the American People.

Since Zuccotti was cleared Occupy has also put a renewed focus on its occupation of foreclosed homes. For a long while (as far as I've heard Occupy Atlanta may have been the first) occupy groups have taken to staking out homes in foreclosure to rally public opinion and put pressure on banks to renegotiate mortgage payment schedules to keep families in homes. Several families across the country have been able to stave off eviction thanks to the efforts of local Occupy groups, and now that many of these groups have no home they have increased their focus on making sure evicted folks can re-enter theirs. The group launched this new focus with great fanfare this past month with a large march through the hard-hit eastern neighborhoods of Brooklyn, moving a family into a home and throwing a block party in celebration. This was a much needed reach into the poorer parts of New York that may have felt an affinity for the goals of OWS but, for one reason or another may have been unable to join in the protest.

These efforts have largely been successful at further shifting the economic conversation to income inequality - with the added benefit of doing direct, immediate good - so in light of that does Occupy really need to keep trying to re-establish a public space? Over 50 protesters were just arrested last weekend trying to set up a new camp at Duarte Square, on land owned by Trinity Church on which OWS has been seeking permission to camp. Were those necessary and worth it?

I say yes. Definitively, unequivocally, yes.

These very public occupations serve so many functions that have been vital to the growth of Occupy and, I believe, will be vital to its survival going forward. First and foremost they've been a very open, honest face for the movement. I've talked to folks who have doubted the convictions or intentions of the Occupiers. Or who have dismissed them as hippies or malcontents or career activists (not that there's anything wrong with any of that.) My response to these accusations has always been a longwinded, logical defense but in the end I always ask that, before anyone judge, they just go down to the park and have some conversations with the people down there. The people who think Occupy is just a bunch of jobless college kids might be surprised to find the middle-aged mom who brought her kids down for the day to show them what change really looks like. Or the working class man just off a ten hour shift coming down to the camp to give what little spare time he has to build a better future. Or the 1 percenter who believes America needs equality more than they need lower taxes. Those who write the group off as a mouthpiece for the Democratic party will take solace in the fact that most at any occupied park will rail against the Democrats as readily as they will against the Republicans. This openness, this community, this exchange of ideas absolutely cannot be replaced were Occupy to go underground, only to surface for direct actions. This course would only serve to further distance the movement from those it is working for, and it assumes that, by this time, anyone who would have signed on already has and writes off everyone else.

Further, there's a very human reason to re-occupy. Many of the people who have put their bodies on the line for Occupy in its early days - when the park was an absolute necessity - have nowhere else to go. In New York many that were displaced from the park have taken to spending their nights in churches because they don't have homes to fall back on. Some were homeless folks to whom Occupy gave community and food, yes, but also direction and hope. Some were activists who chose to leave behind leases to give themselves fully to the movement. These folks cannot be forgotten since it was upon their shoulders that this movement was built, and upon their shoulders that many police batons have fallen.

Finally, obstinately, Occupy must continue to try to re-occupy because the group has every right to hold the space it does. Last I checked the United States Constitution supercedes park regulations and the First Amendments states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is not up to various mayors' offices to limit free political speech. If assembly for government redress isn't protected and unrestricted 24-hours a day than it might as well not be protected because protest in a fashion that is comfortable for the powerful is not protest at all. Occupy's fight for space, for the right for Americans to have a voice anywhere in America, for the power of speech outside of a "free speech zone" is a worthy fight on its own, outside of all other factors.

One of the chants most favored with the Occupy protesters is, "This is what democracy looks like." When I'm in an occupied park, in its chaotic, diverse, idealistic, hopeful glory I can't help but agree.

*In New York City many large companies make deals with the city to circumvent certain zoning rules by building parks or atria for public use.

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