Occupy Main Street

Police removed Occupy Wall Street protesters from Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park) at one o’clock this morning. This evening, they have returned, as determined as ever to inhabit the space once again.

With winter approaching, many have wondered what those who are staying camped out in public squares as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement are going to do next. Kalle Lasn, whose original call for a Tahrir Square equivalence in lower Manhattan last July sparked the movement, yesterday called for the movement to declare victory, have a huge celebration and then move indoors. In a “tactical briefing,” he says that after the global victory party:

Then we clean up, scale back and most of us go indoors while the die-hards hold the camps. We use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad [number of] projects ready to rumble next Spring.

If the movement becomes entirely about the parks protesters are occupying, along with all the issues that come with being an open, urban encampment of diverse people creating community together, and police actions against them, then something will have been lost. Those who oppose Occupy Wall Street would like the news stories to remain about the drug use and deaths, trumped up sanitation and safety issues, and whether the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects camping as free speech. They want to keep attention diverted from the issues of social inequities and economic injustice and focused instead on how “unsavory” the protesters are.

Whatever the General Assemblies in various cities decide, I think it’s time to move into a next phase of this social change effort. Call it “Occupy Main Street.” A sustained protest movement in suburbs and small towns as well as in urban centers could sustain the movement through the winter and through police repression. Marches and rallies can take place in those squares where encampments once stood, or are being inhabited by the faithful remnant. And they can take place in towns across the country.

I appreciate that many groups working on issues of economic justice have been invigorated by the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But I personally would hate to see this movement co-opted by MoveOn.org or the Democratic Party or even the labor movement. Its vibrancy has been in its obstinate refusal to play by the rules of politics as usual, transgressing all of the expectations people have (leaders, demands, spokespeople). It chose exactly the right target: Wall Street. And it chose exactly the right tactic: outraged protest. I really would hate this movement to go home and start writing letters to the editor or raising money for sympathetic politicians’ election campaigns. So I’m hoping that’s not what the next phase looks like, not entirely. This is essentially about protest and direct action.

At a recent event at my church, we were having a discussion about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Conversation quickly turned from material and moral support for Occupy Boston toward actions we could be taking in our town, a rather tony suburb. Should we leaflet customers going into banks? Should we picket Bank of America? How difficult will it be for all of those people who are not camping out, but who support the cause, to start nonviolent direct action campaigns in the places where they are? I’m thinking: boycotts, picket lines, rallies, teach-ins… pressing for change in our tax system, regulation of Wall Street, federal spending, fair elections, the “personhood” of corporations and their undue influence on government. Keeping it in the streets, even if we’re not (all) camping there. In each of our towns and neighborhoods, we could gather a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to take our democracy back from the corporations and banks as well as the politicians they have bought off.  (Oops, a little ACT UP just snuck in there!). And then we would sustain the energy of this protest movement and keep it going until, well, until we win.

As they said tonight at Zuccotti Square: You cannot evict an idea whose time has come. 


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