Occupy Wall Street, Year Two

Approaching its anniversary, the movement isn't dead. It's growing up.

Every Monday for the past six weeks, a crowd of activists has piled into a cramped office space on 23rd Street to plan the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

All of the jokes about leftists and their meetings probably go double for Occupy, a collection of people defined only by the initial protest tactic they shared, a collection of people with political philosophies ranging from anarchism to Marxism to the most moderate shades of liberal reformism.

The arguments are frequent, and even when they're absent, tensions and disagreements seethe just under the surface.

Kevin Vanden/wordpress.com

Some of the fights are about tactics: Can the logistically ambitious plans for a swirling "hurricane" of protesters pinwheeling from intersection to intersection through Lower Manhattan really be pulled off? Is a protest framework built around loosely coordinated but independent "affinity groups" a recipe for open-source creative dissent or a tepid vision that depends on a self-organized army of protesters that will never arrive for its success?

Other disagreements are ideological and as old as Occupy itself. Who does this movement belong to? Is it the anarchists who played a critical role in getting it off the ground, and whose philosophical and structural underpinnings were central to what it became? Or is there room for a broader spectrum of the rhetorical "99 percent," for less radical perspectives that seek incremental reform?

Amid the conflict and tension, something is emerging from the frequently agonizing four-hour meetings. The factionalism that for so long seemed to threaten to tear the movement apart seems increasingly manageable. After a year of precisely these sorts of arguments, anarchists, liberals, and union stalwarts all know the contours of their disagreements, but they're also better than they've ever been at pushing through them.

They're also increasingly confident that whatever this thing is that binds them together, that keeps them coming back to the next meeting, the next hard-won consensus, whatever they call that shared project, it has a future beyond this first anniversary.

Having weathered a rocky first year during which police repression and its own growing pains led a fickle news media to write it off again and again, Occupy persists—in these meetings on 23rd Street, in a far-flung but well-coordinated network across the nation and the Internet, and, when the anniversary rolls around on September 17, right back in the streets of Lower Manhattan, where it all started.

As Occupy plans its own anniversary and the movement prepares to enter its second year, organizers find themselves in something like the role of particle physicists studying the readouts of a cyclotron: Something bright and hot happened in Zuccotti Park for a few months last fall. What was it? What was the magical formula, the combination of circumstances so powerful it could transform so many people who visited the park and capture the imagination of an entire nation, while reframing the popular conversation and inspiring hundreds of sympathetic uprisings across the country, from Los Angeles to Kalamazoo? Can they replicate it?

Some of the critical ingredients of that first flash are gone, maybe forever. Police and institutional powers seem determined to deny the movement the physical space that was so central to its early days.

Still, even more fundamental conditions of last autumn's rebellion remain and are only becoming more pronounced. The foreclosure crisis is, if anything, accelerating. The bankers whose crimes provoked the ongoing crisis are still free men, and the prosecutions and regulatory reforms that might prevent this all from happening again are nowhere to be seen.

"The economic conditions are just as bad as they were a year ago," says Bill Dobbs, an Occupy spokesman. "The 1 percent hasn't given anything up."

But is that enough? Can Occupy recapture the remarkable momentum that seemed to spring from nowhere last year?

At their most disheartened, some activists say that the most they can do is wait for the moment when the economic and political situation becomes so bad that public anger finally overcomes the barriers that keep people from taking action.

The obituary of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been written and rewritten hundreds of times in the year since the movement first burst into the national consciousness.

Early drafts were penned when the first tents went up in Zuccotti Park, and more followed in the winter months after coordinated police actions expelled encampments from public parks in virtually every major city in the country. 

Through the winter and spring, the energy of many of New York's Occupy protesters was spent in two ways.

The first was an ongoing fight against the police repression—shutting down public spaces and conducting violent and unlawful arrests virtually every time protesters tried to assemble—that dogged the movement's every action.

When protesters emerged from their winter hibernation to mark Occupy's six-month anniversary in March, the gathering provoked a massive police response that led to scores of arrests and injuries.

In the following weeks and months, protesters kept up their fight for their right to assemble, first in Union Square—where police took the unprecedented step of closing the park every night with more than 100 officers and truckloads of barricades—then in the financial district across from the New York Stock Exchange, where the arrests and harassment continued in apparent violation of a federal ruling protecting the right of protesters to occupy sidewalk space.

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