Occupy Wall Street is at a defining crossroads barely two months after coming into existence. As more mayors across the U.S. follow Mike Bloomberg’s precedent in evicting OWS encampments from public spaces in an attempt to reassert control over the demonstrators, participants will have to come together and begin outlining a long-term strategy. Up till now the movement has been successful partly because of it’s highlighting of socio-economic inequalities, and partly because it has been linked to public spaces where protesters could gather, deliberate, and settle into a semi-regular pattern of life while planning their next steps.
However, the novelty of the movement is in danger of wearing thin in the public eye—a large part of it due to the mainstream media’s continued and myopic insistence on the “lack of a message” behind the protests. Just as problematic is that OWS movements around the country are forcefully being made to leave their occupied spaces, which have up till now played a very important symbolic role. In short, whether we like it or not, OWS is moving into a second phase of existence—from a movement premised around actual occupation into a social movement no longer tied to a single strategy.
The eviction from Zuccotti Park and all other public spaces across the country could be a blessing in disguise. Far from destroying the spirit of the protesters, as some may have prematurely predicted, it has made them all the more galvanized and resilient. Whereas many sympathizers (and critics) have increasingly raised concerns about the idea of what the occupation (or “camp out”, depending on who you ask) of a park can actually accomplish, the evictions can have the effect of spreading more protests, coordinated at an even more rapid pace than through the deliberative process in the parks and directed at a broader range of issues. But how broad and for what goal?
One of the biggest challenges any growing social movement has to face is striking the proper balance between broadening its base of support by becoming more inclusive, and streamlining its message into a clear program with which all participants can more or less agree. While OWS has consciously done all it can to remain consensus-based, transparent, and non-hierarchical, there is a danger that these terms can become conflated into a debilitating suspicion of organization as such. Likewise, there is a tension between following the ideals that have brought the participants of a movement together, and having to make tactical and strategic decisions that are inevitable in the messy world of politics. To these questions there is no easy or programmatic solution. But that is also why it makes them all the more important to raise and grapple with.
The eviction from Zuccotti is forcing OWS to confront the question of long-term strategy. It is by far the biggest and most difficult test that a movement can face in its early stages.
The fact is that OWS is being presented today with a historic opportunity to organize widespread but latent public discontent into a truly influential and transformative movement. But in order for this to be done, the participants need to think about how to establish a reliable and consistent network of organization and long-term planning. This strategy could be directed toward tasks like canvassing local communities to spread information about social inequality, conducting public outreach in the form of teach-ins and workshops, continuing to build strong relations with labor unions and local places of worship, and developing an even stronger presence on university campuses. These suggestions do not exhaust the possible options by far. The point is simply to illustrate that, in this second phase of OWS, what was once the primary tactic—occupation of a public space—now must be expanded into a plurality of tactics.
Yet alongside this plurality, it is also important that OWS does not lose sight of its own goals, allowing them to be parceled into contending factions by competing interests. Neither should philosophical differences be allowed to divide the movement at the expense of pragmatic and tactical decisionmaking and planning. A clarity and forcefulness of message should not be compromised in favor of particular interests when the goal is to affect long-term change in how politics is conducted in our society. For that end, what is needed is persistence and a strategic increasing of pressure and demands. Transforming a nation’s political culture is a slow effort where perseverance, foresight, and planning are just as valuable as autonomous direct action. Here we would be wise to remember Rudi Dutschke, who following Gramsci, once said: “Hegemony is the long march through the institutions.”