The Whole World Watches Again: Occupy Wall Street Strikes Back

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Protesters cheer as they listen to speakers near Sproul Hall at the University of California at Berkeley as they participate in an Occupy Cal rally Nov. 15, 2011 in Berkeley, California. (Jeff Chiu / AP)

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg authorized the city’s police force to move in and bring an end to the near two month occupation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, he struck at the symbolic heart of a movement that, through the sheer fact of its presence, captured the imagination of thousands around the world. Bloomberg framed the eviction as a matter of health and safety: he would not let the occupation peter out on its own as New York’s frigid winter set in—“inaction was not an option,” read the statement issued by the mayor’s office following the police raid. But as Occupy Wall Street embarks on a day of action across New York City that’s being echoed by protests around the U.S. and the world, Bloomberg may yet question whether he should have let Zuccotti be.

According to one Occupy Wall Street organizer, estimates for attendance at events planned for Nov. 17 have tripled following the sudden NYPD sweep into what the protesters call Liberty Plaza. Nov. 17 marks two months since the occupation at Zuccotti Park began and Occupy Wall Street, alongside allied organizations, including unions, had been scheming actions weeks in advance. Some New York City officials now expect “tens of thousands” out on the streets in possibly the biggest show of dissent since the movement began.

There are three main events planned in New York, as this somewhat hyperbolic poster (invoking Tiananmen Square) lays out: the first is a mass rally starting from Zuccotti Park (once again opened to protest), attempting to “shut down” Wall Street with a march on the heavily fortified New York Stock Exchange; the second involves disparate groups of protesters taking over subway lines and telling their individual stories through the “people’s mike” while on board; the third will be the culmination of the day’s activities, with thousands streaming into Foley Square, near New York’s City Hall, alongside a substantial presence from local and national labor unions.

Whatever the turnout in New York, Occupy Wall Street’s original congregation will be far from isolated. A look at the #N17 stream on Twitter reveals the depth and diversity of protests taking place elsewhere in the U.S. Across the Atlantic, a host of actions are planned in a number of European nations. Students in Spain will have commenced a nationwide general strike by the time OWS activists start gathering at Zuccotti Park, while in debt-ridden Greece — no stranger to protests this year — unions, students and government workers will mark the anniversary of a famous 1973 student anti-junta uprising with continued demonstrations against Athens’ proposed austerity measures and public spending cuts. As reported on Global Spin before, many of those participating in these far-flung actions consider their causes linked.

Fueling the fire in New York, though, is the raw memory of the Zuccotti Park eviction. Given the numbers involved, it’ll be difficult for the police to repeat the stealthy, swift stifling of protest they achieved the night of the raid. Nor will Bloomberg want any further bad press: I was among numerous other journalists who witnessed what seemed like heavy-handed policing and were denied access to the immediate environs of the park. At least seven journalists were arrested, including Jared Malsin, a reporter for the New York TimesEast Village blog. You can see his own footage of events leading up to the arrest — Malsin (who, full disclosure, also happens to be a friend) was clearly complying with police orders, carrying his press credentials and attempting to back away when seized. He spent the night of the eviction in a large cell crammed with up to 60 or 70 people, with precious little room to stand or sit.

If journalists are miffed, then what about the occupiers? In reality, in the days leading up to the NYPD intervention, the spirit in Zuccotti Park was flagging. Numbers had dwindled as temperatures dropped and interviews with Occupy diehards often revealed cracks and divisions within the movement that either had not existed before or had been kept safely under wraps in earlier weeks. Adbusters, the anti-consumerist magazine that first called for an action to Occupy Wall Street, even issued a tactical briefing the day before the eviction, suggesting the occupiers consider quieting activities until it gets warmer:

We clean up, scale back and most of us go indoors while the die-hards hold the camps. We use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad projects ready to rumble next Spring.

It’s safe to say that, wherever this movement goes now, it’s not going into retreat. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman sums up the galvanizing effect the eviction may have had:

By acting so badly, Bloomberg has made it easy to see who won’t be truthful and can’t handle open discourse. He’s also saved OWS from what was probably its greatest problem, the prospect that it would just fade away as time went on and the days grew colder.

The Adbusters missive that followed the dismembering of Zuccotti Park’s encampments struck a wholly different tone, placing the Occupy movement in 2011′s long continuum of struggle:

When Tunisia rose up, Ben Ali scoffed … when young people occupied Tahrir Square, Mubarak resorted to paternalism and then mob violence … in Syria, Assad’s troops fire daily into the crowds. And on Tuesday, a military style assault on Zuccotti Park – news blackouts, tear gas, closed airspace, an LRAD “sound cannon” – was carried out in the dead of night to take out our movement’s spiritual home…

This assault has stiffened our resolve. Now begins the second, visceral, canny, militant phase of our nonviolent march to real democracy. We regroup, lick our wounds and begin our counterattack.

Admittedly, it’s not quite accurate to equate the suffering of Zuccotti’s occupiers with the travails faced by the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring, but, very much like what transpired in countries across the Middle East, clumsy, brutal actions by security forces only stoked and strengthened protest movements. It’s happened for Occupy Wall Street a number of times already — including the pepper-spraying of young female protesters, the “kettling” of 700 demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge and now the invasion of OWS’s “spiritual home.”

It’s impossible to augur what direction the movement will turn in the coming days and weeks, but many observers doubt it will fade. Sure, some would obviously cheer the movement on. But, others like this editorial writer in the Financial Times, hardly a leftist rag, also recognize the movement’s ideological staying power:

Rising income inequality. Very slow economic growth. High unemployment. It’s no wonder that even a number of politicians on the right have started to express a degree of sympathy for those who have been demonstrating around the world in recent weeks. The fact that the protesters have no clear agenda is irrelevant. They represent concerns that many people can relate to, and they are unlikely to go away.

These are grievances that cross boundaries and have found well-springs of support and sympathy in the most unlikely of places. Solidarity with Occupy Wall Street cuts both ways, though. Recently, a coalition of Cairo activists issued an appeal to the entire Occupy movement asking them to also aid in the fight against Egypt’s backward slide toward military dictatorship. The statement read: “Our strength is in our shared struggle. If they stifle our resistance, the 1% will win—in Cairo, New York, London, Rome—everywhere. But while the revolution lives our imagination knows no bounds.” Even if this revolution ends up being simply one of the mind, many protesters will say it was worth it.

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