What’s next for Occupy Wall Street?
After early morning raids on Wednesday, police have now shut down two of the largest remaining Occupy encampments in the country, in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The police tactics in those cities mimicked those of police in New York, who led the way in the assault on Occupy Wall Street by dislodging protesters from their main encampment in Zuccotti Park earlier this year. To date, there have been more than 5,000 arrests of protesters at Occupy sites across the country, and 28 of those arrested have been journalists, according to Josh Stearns of the media reform group Free Press.
In Los Angeles, as in New York, many journalists said they were blocked from witnessing the raid and interviewing protesters. Police attempted to carefully control coverage of the operation, allowing a small number of journalists to go behind police lines as part of a designated media “pool.” Police cleared so-called “uncredentialed” journalists from the area surrounding the encampment, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that the city had set up a so-called “First Amendment Zone” for reporters.
In both cities, as many as 1,000 police officers descended on the encampments, and when protesters dispersed into the streets they were penned in by barricades. In New York, those tactics resulted in violent clashes, as protesters attempted to march from Union Square to Liberty Park and were headed off by cordons of police in riot gear. Similarly, in Los Angeles, 200 protesters were arrested, along with 50 in Philadelphia.
The raids, along with the impending winter weather, raise the question once again of how the Occupy movement will survive. Many protest organizers see the winter as an opportunity to regroup and re-emerge in time for the peak of the presidential election early next year. Indeed, such a strategy could provide Occupy Wall Street with the one thing many critics have accused the movement of lacking: a strategy for achieving concrete political goals.
The Occupy protesters, after all, are unlikely to gain another permanent foothold like the ones in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles: A judge has already ruled that the city’s prohibition on tents in public parks, however politically unpalatable, is legal under the “time, place and manner” restrictions of the First Amendment. The Occupy protesters, who gained so much symbolic power from their physical encampments, will have to adapt now that the police have succeeded in dislodging them from public spaces.
In many ways, the evolution of the movement could be healthy. The Occupy protesters have, after all, achieved a lot. The ideas behind the movement are now firmly implanted in the national psyche. The “99 percent” is part of our common vernacular, used routinely in the media and in political discourse. And, perhaps most notably, the protesters have succeeded in shifting the national political dialogue away from debt and spending cuts and toward the massive wealth gap between the country’s highest earners and the middle and working classes. The Obama administration, for example, is kick-starting a new initiative on one of the movement’s signature issues: college affordability and student debt.
The last raid, in New York, gave Occupy Wall Street a bigger boost, perhaps, than any other single event in the movement’s two-month history. Instances of police brutality, media blackouts and excessive force, like the pepper spray at U.C. Davis, have won the sympathy and attention of many otherwise skeptical Americans. The challenge now for Occupy Wall Street will be to capitalize on those moments and evolve from a spontaneous uprising into a full-fledged movement capable of challenging the political class.