Occupy Wall Street, Year Two

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

So determined was the NYPD to deny protesters a space to gather that when a march passed nearby Tompkins Square in May, officers chained the entire park shut, closing it to the public.

The battle over ongoing police repression continues today, though mostly in the legal arena. A host of lawsuits accusing the city and police of violating protesters' Constitutional rights is just beginning to work its way through federal court; a damning and encyclopedic report by legal scholars released last month catalogs hundreds of specific police violations; and international human rights observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are conducting their own investigation of the repression.

But even as the legal battles continue, Occupy protesters agree more and more that while ongoing police repression might be unavoidable, Occupy's fixation on its foundational tactic—the physical occupation of public space—is, for the moment at least, a dead end.

Kevin Vanden/wordpress.com

"They're never going to let us have a public space like that again," one protester told me. "We can bang our heads against that forever, but it's not going to happen. All it does is draw us more into fights with the police and away from the issues that brought us all together in the first place."

The second focus of Occupy's attention over the winter and spring was planning for a major re-emergence on May Day. By many standards, the May Day events were a success. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers packed Union Square and coursed down Broadway.

Less obvious but perhaps more important was the behind-the-scenes coalition-building that May Day organizers conducted, brokering a more or less unprecedented alliance between organized labor and immigrants' rights groups and drawing unions to embrace May Day, an international day of workers that has been shunned by generations of American organized labor for its radical associations.

But despite these accomplishments, the dominant media narrative had already closed the book on Occupy, and organizers found they were unable to recapture the lightning that had struck in the park. Press attention to the day's events was cursory at best, leaving many inside the movement dispirited and reinforcing a popular perception that Occupy was moribund.

Nothing to see here, the sober voices of conventional wisdom declared. That moment you might have found exciting is over. What remains of Occupy is a shrinking band of addled and disorganized malcontents, retreading the same rhetorical ground with ever-diminishing effect.

Many Occupy participants now concede that they walked into that trap, and that staking their movement's credibility and vitality on a one-day spectacular show of force was a strategic mistake.

Occupation, after all, was a tactic, an action that took place for a moment, first near Wall Street and then in many other places around the world. Conflating the tactic with the social energy it represented is one of the easiest ways to misunderstand what happened last year and what is yet to come. If Occupy Wall Street is no longer occupying Wall Street, it's easy to say the movement is dead.

What the obituary writers fail to recognize is that the spectacle of the occupation was only the most obvious of Occupy's weapons. Its real strength, its true innovation, was the way that people who found their way to Zuccotti Park—literally and figuratively—related to one another.

There's one thing people say again and again when they talk about what Occupy has meant to them: "We found each other in Zuccotti Park." 

Most simply, they mean that they learned they were not alone in believing that something is seriously wrong in this country and that knowledge strengthened their resolve to do something.

"People at the beginning were like, "It's the revolution!" says Tammy Shapiro, a veteran organizer who helps coordinate the archipelago of Occupy groups across the country through interoccupy.net. "When that didn't happen, a lot of people got disappointed."

That conviction has burned off, but it doesn't mean that Occupiers now think of what happened as unremarkable, just the latest in a long line of upwellings of activist energy. There really is something fundamentally new about Occupy, about what happened when people "found each other."

"I don't identify as an anarchist," says a longtime Occupier who calls himself "Winter." "But some of the anarchist principles that manifest in Occupy are empowering: the fact that we use democracy to make our decisions; that we don't want to make compromises just to have political impact. We feel like we're creating another world just in the way that we're interacting with each other."

The energy unleashed when these people found one another has given birth to a panoply of projects, some of them local and focused on local issues, others national in scope and organization. The technological infrastructure of sites including interoccupy.net and occupytogether.org are helping these groups grow and coordinate.

Among the most notable of these projects is the national Occupy Homes movement, which operated locally in neighborhoods such as East New York but was most fully realized by activists in Minneapolis, Detroit, and Atlanta. By blocking the eviction of families from foreclosed homes—foreclosures often going forward in the face of banks' poor documentation and even outright fraud—activists continue to call attention to one of the most direct ways that the crimes committed in the financial stratosphere impact regular Americans.

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