At 1 a.m. Tuesday morning, Zuccotti Park, home base of the nearly 2-month-old Occupy Wall Street protest, was ordered to be cleared. Reuters reported that "hundreds of police dismantled the sea of tents, tarps and protests signs at Zuccotti Park."
A hearing later Tuesday ruled that Occupy Wall Street could no longer occupy the Brookfield Properties (NYSE: BPO ) -owned public access park where they are camping. "The movants have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park ... to the exclusion of the owner's reasonable rights and duties" to maintain the park, a judge ruled.
The Occupy protesters were readmitted to Zuccotti Park Tuesday evening -- but were not allowed to bring tents, camping equipment, or bicycles with them, meaning the complex city within the city erected Sept. 17 is effectively dead.
However you feel about the raid -- justified and overdue or needlessly aggressive -- if the larger movement wants to succeed, it's a very good thing. Here's why.
1. The park was overshadowing the protest.
When I first traveled to Zuccotti Park in early October, the nascent movement was gaining steam; besides me, there were no less than 200 media members walking around the park speaking with protesters, photographing signage, and generally trying to figure out what the Occupy movement was about. I left impressed with the "nuanced, pro-capitalist, pro-reform arguments" I heard from some very bright people.
I wrote then that "the more they attract articulate people with specific ideas, the more steam this movement gains." Problem is, even if the articulate protesters have grown in numbers, their voices are getting drowned out.
Last week, I returned to Zuccotti Park and found it to be less dynamic, with less interesting -- let alone compelling -- arguments. It was something like a tourist trap, with panhandlers, cheap trinkets for sale, gawking crowds, and media trucks.
There were many more people -- and many more police to match -- but gone were the pleas for financial education in public schools, or voting with your feet and moving money from too-big-to-fail banks. Instead, it was a strange soup. The main reason some protesters were being heard was because they were literally yelling the loudest. (No megaphones allowed in the park, remember.) Anarchists set up a table facing Broadway and were handing out "Vote for No One" pamphlets. I was asked to donate money at least four times last Tuesday; in October, no one was asking for money.
The media circus and the physical gathering had become bigger than the group's message. Logistics became fascinating: How would they survive through winter? How were they fundraising? This report from The New York Review of Books sums it up:
She pointed out the hermetic nature of being in "camp" all the time -- another drawback to occupation. You lived inside your own social experiment, losing touch with "the rest of the country," as Katie put it, a self-defeating state for a political activist.
2. It takes all kinds.
When people asked me what I saw at the protest sites I visited in New York and D.C., my usual retort was that whatever you were looking for, you'd find.
Yet, I also personally spoke with a neuroscientist, a historian, and a librarian, and I witnessed (but didn't disturb) a university professor grading papers.
If you go down there looking for smart, articulate protesters, you'll find them. If you go looking for those without a clue or those just there for free handouts, you'll find them, too.
According to one protester I spoke with, "OWS is, by its very nature, hard to pin down as one philosophy. ... The movement is not 'anti-capitalist,' though I'm sure you could cherry-pick and find a few people who would espouse that viewpoint. Then again, that sort of comes with the territory of any large protest."
When I visited the much smaller gathering at Occupy D.C., I found a sign with a makeshift list of demands that included both "Reinstate Glass-Steagall" and "End Capitalism." Good luck achieving both.
When media coverage focuses on extremist views -- "End Capitalism," "Vote for No One" -- the mainstream will hear the Thing That Sounds Crazy, and then tune out everything else.
3. The spirit of their message appears to be alive and well.
Yet their populist message appears to be widely shared. In public opinion polls, the Occupy movement has a better standing than Congress, Wall Street, large corporations, and the tea party. With unemployment close to double digits and the U.S. economy still sputtering along, this protest poster more or less captures the mood of many in the country:
Author's photo at Occupy D.C., mid-October 2011.
Early on, one of the best moves Occupy Wall Street made was to identify itself with the We Are the 99% blog -- a collection of heartbreaking testimonials that seemed to capture every sad story of the downturn. That blog doesn't include names; faces are half-covered by the pieces of paper on which they've scribbled their story. It has a universal feel.
In that anonymity is power. The protesters, on the other hand, are on TV almost every night.
And that's why this eviction could be good for the overall movement. If they seize the moment and try instead, say, to replicate the Occupy-linked Bank Transfer Day by mobilizing sympathetic, socially connected, fed-up Americans, maybe they have room to run.
It removes the circus of the park itself -- the "social experiment" -- from the conversation. Occupying a privately owned park near Wall Street got the conversation going, but isn't the point to occupy the national conversation?