Why Getting Evicted Could Help Occupy Wall Street

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.

Hippies? Check. (Erin Burnett "profiled" them.) Ex-cons and the mentally ill there for the free food and camaraderie? Check. Marxists with Che Guevara T-shirts? Check.

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?

Brian Richards is managing editor of Fool.com. Follow him on Twitter @brianlrichards. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (36)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 4:26 PM, cattywampus wrote:

    A well balanced honest appraisal of the situation. I agree they need to put the move back in movement. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 4:49 PM, TMFBrich wrote:

    Interesting read on CNBC.com about the legal ruling here: "There’s a large constitutional issue at stake here. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court." http://www.cnbc.com/id/45326709/

    -Brian Richards

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 4:54 PM, GrumpyOldGuy wrote:

    Being a Tea Partier and an Occupier are not mutually exclusive. It would be difficult to find someone further to the Right than myself but I believe that many of the goals of both groups are closely aligned.

    The Occupiers are finding that sometimes the messenger gets shot (metaphorically of course), not because of the news they bring, but because the method of delivery is not acceptable..

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 7:37 PM, DangerousDave8 wrote:

    I agree, the method in which they present their case is not necessarily the most effective way...

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 7:46 PM, interdependent wrote:

    Boy! it sure would be great to open up the newspaper one day to find they really can occupy the national conversation, reignite a more democratic nurturing of ideas, face-to-face, not played out by talking heads and idealogues on TV, but in every town.

    Can we capture the spark and spirit of a great town hall meeting and keep it alive and growing every day? Is that what democracy looks like?

    Thanks for a thoughtful article, with a positive look at the big picture.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 8:34 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/nov/16/occupy-p...

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/16/overcoming-contradict...

    Observations from the British and Australian press . . . the perspective of distance and all that.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 8:48 PM, Merton123 wrote:

    Thankyou for the positive article. The protestors are saying that a problem exists. I believe that Isreal history has a possible solution - the Kibbutz

    A kibbutz (Hebrew: קיבוץ, קִבּוּץ, lit. "gathering, clustering"; plural kibbutzim) is a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture. Today, farming has been partly supplanted by other economic branches, including industrial plants and high-tech enterprises.[1] Kibbutzim began as utopian communities, a combination of socialism and Zionism. In recent decades, some kibbutzim have been privatized and changes have been made in the communal lifestyle. A member of a kibbutz is called a kibbutznik (Hebrew: קִבּוּצְנִיק‎‎).

    In 2010, there were 270 kibbutzim in Israel. Their factories and farms account for 9% of Israel’s industrial output, worth US$8 billion, and 40% of its agricultural output, worth over $1.7 billion

    Many of us will be forced to live together if the unemployment continues. The Kibbutz could be a way to pool resources and jump start the economy when our national government is up to its ears in debt.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 10:49 PM, brokerEd wrote:

    Thanks for the article but next time go to the local library and you could interview a wiser class of perps with a better chance of success in changing anything. With such a diverse collection of whiners how can there ever be a common message. I guess Marshall McCluhan's "The medium is the message" may apply here. Chaos seems to be their message and a symptom of cultural breakdown not change for the better. Sorry

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 12:39 AM, maiday2000 wrote:

    Even the Democratic outfit, Public Policy Polling, shows that the Occupy movement has a lower approval rating than the Tea Party (Tea Party wins 43-37).

    http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2011/11/voters-movin...

    I believe that this fact is quite significant. The mainstream media falls all over themselves to fawn over the Occupy movement (look at the puff piece in Sunday's Washington Post) and make excuses for their lawbreaking and demonized the Tea Party endlessly. But the fact remains - the Occupy movement actually IS all of the things the Tea Party was accused of being(racist, anti-American, crazy, etc.), and a wolf can only hide in sheep's clothing for so long.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 2:00 AM, TurbulentTime wrote:

    @brokerEd, I just went to the San Francisco library, I saw some homeless people, smelly, hungry, asking people nearby for money to buy lunch. Are these the people you are referring to as "a wiser class of perps with a better chance of success in changing anything"?

    I think if you look at things through a pair of colored eyeglasses, the colors of things you see are not the original. What I am trying to say is that, please, be more thorought and careful in your observation, as your observation of the entire movement sounds distorted to me.

    Thanks Brian for the 'big picture' write up of the Occupy movement. You are much more a better unbiased observant than many people.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 8:40 AM, ravenesque wrote:
  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 8:42 AM, ravenesque wrote:

    “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!”

    - Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall, UC Berkeley, December 2, 1964

    http://michaelfury.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/you-know-i-just-...

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 10:00 AM, FutureMonkey wrote:

    Left alone and tolerated I suspect the open-ended occupation would eventually have experienced a momentum collapse in the tent city approach - bad weather, disillusionment, increasingly negative sentiment towards the hangers on vs the core. Open But Bloomberg and other city's blinked first. In ejecting them from the tents into the streets they maintained the media cycle, re-energized the core, and gave the movement a way out rather than gradual disolution. Future occupations should now go forward with a defined end -- we are going to stay here for 15 days -- approach that preserves the impact of protest methodology.

    OWS should thank Bloomberg for the eviction, it probably made the movement a permanency that indefinite occupation never could.

    FM

    Incidentally why did they throw books in the trash? Were they protecting citizens from papercuts?

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 11:15 AM, TimothyVR wrote:

    The Motley Fool's unquestioning and breathless support for this 'movement' goes on unabated.

    However, you don't seem to have noticed what the rest of us have seen: that this disgraceful mess has now imploded and the only thing that remains is a left-wing radical group who are making life miserable for anyone who dares get in their way.

    Yet the Motley Fool's left-wing acolytes continue to praise and support them no matter what they do - under all circumstances.

    And this is an investing site! I still don't know how it became politicized - and on the left.

    You might want to reconsider this wholesale support for what is now unquestionably a radically anti-capitalist movement.

    But that would take rational thinking and serious assessment.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 12:13 PM, chomp20x wrote:

    TimothyVR:

    I'm not sure the Fools are endorsing either side. In fact, if you carefully read the article, they seem to disagree with the "anti-capitalist" movement. In any case, the movement is about how capitalism is currently being run by corrupt industries. And I'm sure you could just as well, as any rational person would, point out some flaws with our system.

    For me, I'm still not convinced that "getting evicted could help Occupy Wall Street". What's needed is some sort of collective organization. It would be great if the MF could somehow systematically provide different methods in which to help Occupy Wall Street fulfill their objectives.

  • Report this Comment On November 17, 2011, at 12:43 PM, mdk0611 wrote:

    I don't see it helping if getting evicted means they turn to tactics like blocking the Brooklyn Bridge during evening commute tonight.

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