The ragtag Occupy Wall Street
encampments that sprang up in scores of cities last fall, thrusting “We are the 99 percent” into the vernacular, have largely been dismantled, with a new wave of crackdowns and evictions in the past week. Since the violent clashes last month
in Oakland, Calif., headlines about Occupy have dwindled, too.
Far from dissipating, groups around the country say they are preparing for a new phase of larger marches and strikes this spring that they hope will rebuild momentum and cast an even brighter glare on inequality and corporate greed. But this transition is filled with potential pitfalls and uncertainties: without the visible camps or clear goals, can Occupy become a lasting force for change? Will disruptive protests do more to galvanize or alienate the public?
Though still loosely organized, the movement is putting down roots in many cities. Activists in Chicago and Des Moines have rented offices, a significant change for groups accustomed to holding open-air assemblies or huddling in tents in bad weather.
On any night in New York City, which remains a hub of the movement, a dozen working groups on issues like “food justice” and “arts and culture” meet in a Wall Street atrium, and “general assemblies” have formed in 14 neighborhoods. Around the country, small demonstrations — often focused on banks and ending foreclosure
evictions — take place almost daily.
If the movement has not produced public leaders, some visible faces have emerged.
“I’m finally going to make it to the dentist next week,” said Dorli Rainey, a Seattle activist. “I’ve had to cancel so many times. It’s overwhelming.”
Ms. Rainey, who is 85 and was pepper-sprayed by the police in November, has been fully booked for months. On a recent Thursday, she joined 10 people in Olympia, Wash., who were supporting a State Senate resolution to remove American soldiers from Afghanistan. She led a rally near Pike Place Market against steam incinerators, which the protesters complain release pollution in the downtown area. In March, she plans to join Occupy leaders in Washington for events that are still being planned.
“People have different goals,” Ms. Rainey said. “Mine is, we’ve got to build a movement that will replace the type of government we have now.”
Jumping on a proposal from Portland, Ore., groups in 34 cities have agreed to “a day of nonviolent direct action
” on Feb. 29 against corporations accused of working against the public interest. Then on May 1
, they will try to persuade thousands of Americans who share their belief that the system is rigged against the poor and the middle class to skip work and school, in what they are calling “a general strike” — or “a day without the 99 percent.”
“Inspiring more people to get angry and involved is the top priority,” said Bill Dobbs, a member of the press committee of Occupy Wall Street and a veteran of the Act Up campaign for people with H.I.V. and AIDS. He added that people could “take action on whatever issue is important to them, whether economic justice, the environment or peace.”
But some experts who credit Occupy’s achievements to date wonder if the earnest activists will overplay their hand. Some question how many people will heed a call to stay home from work on May 1, especially since labor unions, which have generally supported Occupy’s message, say they will not strike for the day. And beyond that, Occupy’s utopian calls for democracy and justice may be drowned out by the presidential campaign.
“They’ve gotten the people’s attention, and now they have to say something more specific,” said William A. Galston
, a senior fellow and an expert on political strategy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Average Americans want solutions, not demonstrations, and their patience for the latter won’t last indefinitely.”
Some of Occupy’s dilemmas are those of any emerging movement. “Some of the stuff you do to get attention often puts off your audience,” said David S. Meyer
, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies social movements. “It’s a delicate balance, being provocative enough to get attention and still draw sympathy.”
The issue has been posed most starkly in Oakland, where a militant faction is openly courting conflict with a hostile police department, undermining public support and leading to sharp ideological divides. Some activists have formed separate groups dedicated to nonviolent methods, though tensions are not as acute elsewhere. Crimes reported in some of the camps in the fall also discredited the movement in the eyes of its critics.
But without question, the unfurling of sleeping bags by a few dozen people near Wall Street on Sept. 17 struck a national chord. “In three months, this movement succeeded in shifting political discourse more than labor had been able to accomplish with years of lobbying and electoral campaigns,” said Robert Master, the Northeast political director for the Communications Workers of America, which represents more than half a million telecommunications workers.
“I think there are going to be tremendous opportunities for labor and the Occupy movement to work together,” Mr. Master said. “We have different roles— as labor we are much more embedded in mainstream politics. But we understand that without the pressure of more radical direct-action tactics, the debate in this country won’t change substantially.”
Though President Obama has not publicly embraced the Occupy movement, its fingerprints are evident in his increased focus on economic fairness.
Mr. Galston, the political expert in Washington, said the movement’s success in making inequality more visible “could have an impact down the road on campaigns and elections and agendas.” But he also said that “to this day, the movement has never crystallized its ideas into an agenda.”
So far, home foreclosures are the most consistent target. Groups in Minneapolis are currently camped in homes facing foreclosure. In Atlanta, they take credit for using this method to save the house of an Iraq war veteran, pressing the bank to offer her refinancing after it had already set a date for eviction.
In Providence, R.I., protesters made a deal with the city, agreeing to abandon their camp peacefully this month in return for the city’s opening of a new day center for the homeless.
But many in the movement appear to be pinning their biggest hopes on the nationwide protests planned for the spring and summer. To foster personal ties, Occupy Wall Street veterans, mainly from New York, embarked on a five-week bus tour of a dozen Northeast cities to exchange ideas on protest goals and methods and to hold training sessions with other Occupy groups.
“Without the camps, we’re in a bit of a lull,” Austin Guest, 31, said in New York. He is one of the many younger men and women who have given over their lives to Occupy, often sleeping on sofas and scraping by with donated food or part-time jobs. The actions planned for the spring “will be more substantial and a much greater threat,” he said.
On a recent Saturday evening, some 50 volunteers met in a Greenwich Village church to discuss May Day activities for the city. The group included a mix of ages and races, with graduate students, teachers, older labor veterans and some full-time activists.
In the style of the Occupy movement, it operated with a requirement of consensus. A person designated as the “stack taker” directed the order of speakers and people wiggled or “twinkled” their fingers in the air to show agreement. They discussed a possible schedule of protests for May Day: disrupting commerce that morning, perhaps, and then joining an immigrant rights demonstration at midday and staging a march in the evening.
“Is this O.K.?” the designated facilitator politely asked every few minutes as he moved along the agenda. “Does anyone object?”
A danger for a movement like this, driven by a committed core group with strong views, is political marginalization, said Todd Gitlin
, an expert on social movements at Columbia University. Mr. Gitlin, whose book “Occupy Nation” will be published electronically by HarperCollins in April, said, “You can be big but still isolated,” which he said was what happened to the radical antiwar movement he joined in the 1960s.
Another challenge will be sustaining public anger if the economy continues to show signs of recovery and unemployment falls. Jessica Reznicek, 30, a protester from Des Moines, said the economy in Iowa “is much stronger” than in other places, adding, “there’s not the level of escalation here.” After five demonstration-related arrests in recent weeks, she is taking a step back and refocusing on specific efforts, like challenging companies that make genetically modified crops
But deeper concerns about inequality are not likely to disappear, said Damon A. Silvers, policy director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., nor is the widely shared desire “for the economy to be run for the interests of the majority, not a tiny wealthy minority.”
“Whether the individuals in Occupy Wall Street and their organization turn out to be the center of this sentiment in the next year, I don’t know,” Mr. Silvers said. “But that sentiment will be a powerful force in our country, and the Occupy movement deserves credit for that.”
Reporting was contributed by Jess Bidgood from Boston, Robbie Brown from Atlanta, Dan Frosch from Denver, Ian Lovett from Los Angeles, Carol Pogash from Oakland, Steven Yaccino from Chicago and William Yardley from Seattle. Kitty Bennett contributed research.