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As Occupy Camps Close, What's Next For Movement?

Occupy Wall Street protesters regroup in Foley Square after New York City police in riot gear removed the protesters from Zuccotti Park early Tuesday. on November 15, 2011. The evacuation followed similar moves in Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore.
Spencer Platt
Occupy Wall Street protesters regroup in Foley Square after New York City police in riot gear removed the protesters from Zuccotti Park early Tuesday. on November 15, 2011. The evacuation followed similar moves in Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore.

As pressure mounts in cities across the country to evict Occupy protesters from parks and squares, the movement's supporters face a decision about what to do next.

After months-long sit-ins that have brought international attention to the movement's demand for greater economic equality, as well as occasional clashes between demonstrators and police, cities in recent days have moved in force to end the protests.

In New York, squad cars and police in riot gear descended on Zuccotti Park overnight, forcibly removing Occupy supporters who had been there since September. A day earlier, authorities in Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore., cleared encampments in those cities. The situation is tense in at least a dozen other U.S. cities.


In some cases, the courts may come to the movement's rescue. But the writing may already be on the wall.

Tactical Retreat?

"The other side is owning the narrative right now," Kalle Lasn, the editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, told Britain's The Guardian newspaper last week.

"People are talking about drugs and criminals" among the movement, Lasn said. Adbusters, which first called for the protest, now is calling for a tactical retreat — essentially, declaring victory and going home for now.

But that call carries no teeth in a movement that has prided itself on "horizontalism" — the notion that it is, essentially, leaderless.


For hard-core supporters, it may simply be a case of changing venues. A movement called Occupy Colleges has pushed for a move to universities, where students already have been staging protests over higher tuition costs, among other grievances.

Natalia Abrams, a founding facilitator of Occupy Colleges, said sit-ins are taking place on campus at Harvard, Northeastern and the University of Illinois, among other locations.

"If they are going to take our parks, we're going to occupy the campuses," Abrams said.

It's a strategy that Francesca Polletta, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, thinks could backlash.

"You risk losing a broad base of support, and I think that's one of the ways in which the movement has been extraordinarily successful," Polletta said.

"They've gotten ordinary Americans interested — people who may not want to join a drum circle but nonetheless support the broad goals of the movement," she said.

Hashtags Will Keep Us Together

There are other options.

In a previous generation, the call from Adbusters' Lasn to "pack up and go home" might have represented the kiss of death for a protest movement, Polletta said. But, no longer.

"If people leave and go home, that's the end of the movement. But the fact is that with these new digital media, it's possible to mobilize people again very quickly," she said.

Protest "used to be hard work. It required a lot of effort to get information out. It required time, it was inconvenient, it was often dangerous," she said.

Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, have become powerful new organizing tools that represent a game-changer for protest movements, she said.

Last month, several organizations and individuals that support the Occupy protests met at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss what comes next for the movement. Suren Moodliar, of social activism group Massachusetts Global Action, was among the participants.

Moodliar agrees that social media –- and in particular the use of Twitter hashtags — is a potent new factor, but also that the protests have become a training ground for a new group of activists who may have come together for different reasons, but now have many shared goals.

"The physical encampments themselves have become nodal points for all sorts of progressive groups to condense and connect with one another," he said. "A large number of individuals who were previously not involved politically were inspired by the Occupy movement and educated in various ways by the different groups who have become involved with the Occupy movement."

New Politics of Protest

David Meyer, author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America, agreed. "The people who are engaged in Occupy right now, even if they are not sleeping outside in tents, are forming politics that will stick with them for the rest of their lives."

What would happen to the movement if the encampments disappeared tomorrow?

"Occupy demonstrated a successful tactic," Meyer said. "The success of a tactic is always going to be limited in time either because people get bored or authorities find a way to deal with it.

"What generally happens for successful social movements is that you get groups of people that go off and do all sorts of things," he said.

Expect to see "a bunch of different things," Meyer said.

"Some of the people are going to get sucked up into the electoral process. Some activists have tried to do civil disobedience and direct action at banks. I'd expect to see that continue," he said.

Meyer thinks that as the movement becomes broader, it will necessarily lose its horizontalism.

"A year from now, I think we will still be talking about Occupy," he said.