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Occupying a Footnote to History

What really brought down the OWS movement?

This week the Occupy movement–which officially began with massive street protests and a kaleidoscopic Zuccotti Park encampment in New York City’s Financial District as “Occupy Wall Street” on September 17 last year–marked its first birthday.

Well, some want to call it a “birthday,” assuming there will be many more to come, like the yearly celebration of the growth of a headstrong child. Most seem content to call it an “anniversary,” more of a nod to a one-time event, frozen in a particular moment, like a trippy fossil.

No doubt the mainstream news angle is hewing to the latter version, producing a bevy of laments like “Occupy Wall Street: a Frenzy That Fizzled,” a New York Times commentary by Andrew Ross Sorkin, which gleefully but “delicately” announces that the entire movement was “a fad.” Other headlines are less colorful, in fact, pretty monochromatic in tone, indulging in some version of “Occupy Wall Street In Doubt As Movement Celebrates One-Year Anniversary,” which was exhorted by the Huffington Post on Sunday, alongside “A Year Later, Occupy Has Lost it’s Oomph,” by the Washington Post, or, “A Year On, Occupy Movement Hunts for Ways to Stay Relevant,” the Post’s online version of the same story. Meanwhile on Monday, the Detroit Free Press asked  “Occupy Wall Street movement: Spent after first year?” before the morning’s Wall Street bell even had the chance to ring.

“[Occupy Wall Street] is now a shadow of its mighty infancy,” announced Meghan Barr at The Associated Press, reporting that by the end of the day Monday, some 180 people had been arrested mostly for “disorderly conduct.” According to ABC News:

Occupy Wall Street protesters poured into New York’s financial district today to mark the first anniversary of the movement, but their presence was dwarfed by riot-gear-clad police, who set up metal barriers and formed human walls to pacify the demonstrators. …

At times it seemed the mass of the protest was made up more by the media covering the event than by anyone with a political agenda.

Most of the stories explain that the movement is waning for two key reasons. One, Occupy never had “defined goals,” or “political will.” It had no leadership and had allowed itself to become amorphous and vague while losing its broader populist angle–widespread consumer anger at corporate greed and crony capitalism at the expense of the “99 percent.”

Second, the narrative goes, the movement–particularly in its centers, like NY, Oakland, and Washington DC–gave in to internecine struggles and the petty cliquishness that comes with the territory, but which more cohesive organizations (and messages) are able to transcend.

“There’s a lot of anger and resentment with the Occupy movement,” Christopher Bueker, who spent three days at the Washington D.C encampment last fall, told The Washington Post on Sunday. “The movement wasn’t inclusive. It was more of a social gathering. The results were not exactly what I was looking for.”

Bueker and others were looking to raise the roof, make some noise, and translate their anger over the economic crisis into a call for accountability from the financial industry and their pals in Washington who got the country into this mess. They did not set out to start a club. Meghan Barr writes:

In New York, groups of friends who call themselves “affinity groups” still gather at each other’s apartments for dinner to talk about the future of Occupy. A few weeks ago, about 50 Occupiers gathered in a basement near Union Square to plan the anniversary.

There were the usual flare-ups, with people speaking out of order and heckling the moderators. The group could not agree on whether to allow a journalist to take photographs. An older man hijacked the meeting for nearly 15 minutes with a long-winded rant about the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics. A document called “The Community Agreement of Occupy Wall Street” was distributed that, among other outdated encampment-era rules, exhorted Occupiers not to touch each other’s personal belongings and laid out rules about sleeping arrangements.

“It is this sort of inward-facing thinking—the focus on Occupiers, not the world they’re trying to remake,” that has prevented the movement from replenishing itself with new energy and fresh thinking, Barr added. Instead, a superficial hierarchy and “toxic relationships” among the diehards stunted its growth.

True, true, and true again. Just a casual reading of the drama that unfolded between the two groups represented at Occupy DC–the antiwar left/aging hipsters at Freedom Plaza versus the more Millennial-OWS friendly whipper-snappers at the McPherson Square encampment–proved that high school antics were alive and well even here.

But this of course is not the whole story. I suggest that some of the same corporate media now gurgling easy memes about why Occupy did not make a bigger anniversary splash this week are the ones who played a role in politicizing, and therefore marginalizing, the movement for easily-digestible public consumption. They helped craft the initial “broad grassroots movement” narrative and then shifted it lazily to politics, asking whether it would “help Democrats” or “hurt Obama,” and then finally, made Occupy all about the number of rats and rapes overtaking the the encampments. Suddenly, Democrats were “distancing” themselves from Occupy as local businesses and residents “struggled” with how to survive alongside the carny freaks who pitched the circus next door. This, by the way, was all fueled like a firebox on a runaway freight train by the right-wing mobosphere, to dizzying effect.

With the mainstream finally media losing interest (remember, the major media are owned by only a handful of corporate conglomerates, which happen to like Wall Street), two other factors which could easily be responsible for the ultimate erosion of the movement were — and still are — consistently overlooked or significantly downplayed. First, the overly aggressive if not altogether hysterical police response to the protests, and second, the new city and municipal laws informed by local political and business interests to effectively “disappear” constitutionally-protected gatherings retroactively.

No one will quite forget the YouTube video of a line of students getting pepper-sprayed at the University of California, Davis, but the shock has worn off, especially since the right-wing chatteratti once again seized what should have been a teachable moment on the Constitution and turned it into another partisan talking point. Sad. Photos of bloody protesters, the twisted faces of young women pinned underneath billy clubs or the biceps of beefy cops, came and went with little comment from the MSM. They became commonplace. By the time this report about the excessive use of force by the NYPD came out in July, well, no one really cared. According to The Guardian:

The first systematic look at the New York police department’s response to Occupy Wall Street protests paints a damning picture of an out-of-control and aggressive organization that routinely acted beyond its powers.

In a report that followed an eight-month study (pdf), researchers at the law schools of NYU and Fordham accuse the NYPD of deploying unnecessarily aggressive force, obstructing press freedoms and making arbitrary and baseless arrests.

The violation of press freedoms raised in the report is especially important, since we know that if the police are using “security” to intimidate news organizations, or worse, to manhandle individuals trying to cover events, then the mainstream audience will never get a complete and balanced record of events “on the ground.” Thus, a skewed picture. A false narrative.

From Alternet:

Citing the remarkable work of Josh Stearns of Free Press, who has kept a tally of journalists arrested covering Occupy actions around the country, the report claims that there have been  “at least 85 instances of police arrests of journalists in 12 cities across the country, including at least 44 in New York City on 15 different dates.” The chilling effect these arrests can have is clear. As a photographer said in an interview to the research team, “You never know what is going to happen. You might get hurt. You might get arrested. Just trying to get pictures.”

Meanwhile, in the interest of “health and safety,” an onslaught of new ordinances were passed by local governments and the bulldozers soon rolled in, effectively shutting down the largely peaceful (and up until that point perfectly legal) camp gatherings and rallies on public lands all over the country last year. Even Occupy Tampa, which kept on because of the generosity of a private landowner, folded to public pressure this week. Here is the Defending Dissent blog back in March:

The inevitable counteroffensive was launched in November. Using the mass media, politicians hyped the movements as imminent threats to public health and safety, justifying aggressive evictions of prominent occupations in Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., and New York City. Within weeks other major encampments in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and New Orleans were scattered with hundreds of arrests. A third wave of closures has been underway since late January with occupations shut down from Hawaii to Miami and Austin, Texas, to Buffalo, N.Y. …

Now, a new strategy is being deployed to yank the rug from under occupations in four cities: legal power. Politicians have recently passed laws in Honolulu and Charlotte, N.C., that with a stroke of the pen made the occupations illegal, enabling police to sweep them away. Two more occupations, in Boise, Idaho, and Nashville, may be nearing the end as their respective state legislatures are on the verge of outlawing the democratic villages that for months have been thriving next to edifices of power. Critics charge that the anti-Occupy laws reveal how the law is not an objective code that treats everyone equally, but an arbitrary weapon wielded by the powerful.

Can a movement which thrives on an enthusiastic public presence and the spirit of fortitude really survive this kind of forced displacement? And whose fault is it if it doesn’t?

Funny, it was Forbes writer Tom Watson, who aside from a introductory cliche about how Occupy, “as citizens movements go…came in like a lion and eased out like a lamb,” gave credit where it was due, and saw beyond the collective storyline to capture what was really at stake here:

At its heart, Occupy was as much about free expression as it was about any tangible political goals. And just as importantly, the reaction against Occupy – especially by the City of New York and the administration of Michael Bloomberg, was about containing that free expression – and quite frankly, limiting the constitutional guarantees to speech and free assembly. This is a heavy duty accusation, but I believe that it’s true – and I witnessed first-hand the excessive tactics of the NYPD, particularly senior police officers, in subduing what could hardly be described as a threat to public safety. While there were certainly a few ‘black bloc’ anarchists within OWS bent on pure confrontation and the destruction of property, they were a small minority – and quite frankly, easily identified and isolated (and arrested). Yet time and again, the NYPD seemed to turn angry and swarm into peaceful protesters, arbitrarily enforcing a street-sidewalk marching ban, and using force when none was 1. necessary or 2. ethical. …

But beyond the embarrassment for New York (and blight on Bloomberg’s personal legacy), the confrontations in New York (as well as in Oakland and other cities) put a rare and effective spotlight on the quintessentially American rights of free speech and free assembly. Indeed, in the long run it stands a chance of strengthening assembly rights (often overlooked in traditional framing of First Amendment discussions).

More than just inserting the expression “99 percent” into our lexicon or injecting the political horserace with talk about income equality, Occupy put the American “love of liberty” to the test, if not into context. More than just a footnote to history, Occupy can be a lesson. We just have to move beyond the headlines to grasp it.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.



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