A headline in Sunday’s Metro edition of the New York Times asserts that “Occupy Wall Street Protest Reaches a Crossroads.” The implication of such a title is that the writers believe OWS must change direction. The article manufactures a narrative that the occupation is a temporary affair rather than the beginnings of a long-term movement, and if the encampment at Zuccotti Park is ended, for whatever reason, the movement will founder.
Of course, the occupation does face many challenges: the onset of winter, an infiltration of mentally-unstable homeless people, the lack of bathrooms, the painstaking process of OWS’s horizontal democracy, the hostility of the mayor and some local residents. However, the occupiers are perfectly capable of imaginatively overcoming all of these problems and in fact are already devising ways of doing so.
But what really seems to be driving the Times’s narrative is the authors’ frustration by the movement’s lack of engagement with electoral politics through specific demands on the Democratic party. They cannot bring themselves to embrace the occupation’s assertion of popular sovereignty against the corruption of the political system, when the orientation of NYT writers is to attempt to influence the American political elite.
The article complains: “the protest’s leaderless and nonhierarchical structure raises the question of how effective it can be. The demonstrators have yet to proffer clear demands and have rejected any involvement in electoral politics. And it remains to be seen what will become of the action should they lose their foothold at Zuccotti Park. If the question used to be ‘What do they want?’ it has shifted in recent days to ‘How long will it last?’ …”
But the article itself depicts the political space in which OWS operates: a space between respect for the First Amendment and the desire for public order that has enabled the movement to wedge open the restrictions imposed by the Patriot Act. This space remains viable because the legitimacy of the state is still founded on democratic ideals and because people are claiming it. Otherwise, the First Amendment would be as fictional as Humpty Dumpty.
“On Monday, a group of four local government officials sent a letter to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, insisting that he address the rising tensions in Lower Manhattan. Some protesters were still using the streets as toilets, they complained. Drumming was disturbing nearby residents. Long lines of barricades were making the sidewalks feel as congested as cattle drives. The city should enforce noise and sanitation laws more strictly, the letter said, and take the barricades down. But should it kick the protesters out? Adamantly no. ‘The quality of life needs to be solved but should not be an excuse by those unsympathetic to the message or the protesters’ First Amendment rights,’ one of the letter’s authors, State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, said.”
The concerns of neighbors are not all directed at the occupiers. “Half the residents are completely out of their minds and need Occupy Wall Street to leave immediately,” said Patricia L. Moore, who lives near Zuccotti Park and also leads the Quality of Life Committee for the community board. “And half are residents who came to the last meeting and said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood.’ ” Ms. Moore said that most of the residents’ complaints were less about Occupy Wall Street’s presence than about getting the city to make life better for the protesters and the neighborhood. “It’s not about getting them out,” Ms. Moore said of the protesters. “It’s about public officials doing their jobs.”
The NYPD continue to harass demonstrations in the city but also seem to be nonplussed by the demonstrators’ refusal to acknowledge their authority. They are forced to manufacture trivial reasons for arrest, which undermines their own credibility. On Saturday afternoon hundreds of demonstrators streamed into a public square in lower Manhattan which houses several government buildings and is deserted at the weekend. The marchers “split into two groups, with about 200 on the sidewalk outside the court buildings and a larger group across the street on a large pedestrian island. Some of the protesters marched briskly toward the granite steps at 60 Centre Street, but officers ran to block their path. A lieutenant, using a bullhorn, said the crowd was not permitted on the steps. At another point, an officer ordered the protesters to leave the sidewalk, saying, ‘You are blocking pedestrian traffic.’ But many in the crowd of demonstrators shouted back, ‘We are pedestrian traffic.’…
“As the confrontation continued, the police kept yelling orders that the sidewalk was closed, or temporarily closed, or had to be closed to keep order. They fanned out in a line, stretching orange mesh netting across the breadth of the sidewalk, and walked along, pushing protesters back and sweeping them away. The strategy drew expressions of puzzlement from many in the area. ‘The police warned these people to move because of pedestrian traffic, but this is an empty place,’ said Robert Rosen, 66. ‘Who are they talking about?’ ”
What Occupy Wall Street needs to do is to maintain its course in the political space it has opened up, which means continuing to develop nonviolent methods of protest which gain it legitimacy and support from the 99 percent of Americans struggling with the effects of the recession and disgusted by the financial oligarchy’s control of the Democratic and Republican parties.