The occupation is dead. Long live the occupation.
Amidst the massive media coverage of the military-style eviction Tuesday morning of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment at New York’s Zuccotti Park, an interesting factoid surfaced thousands of miles away.
In an interview with the BBC, Oakland mayor Jean Quan, whose police force forcibly evicted that city’s embattled Occupy encampment early Monday, casually mentioned that she “was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation. . . .”
Sure enough, since the weekend there have been a string of such evictions – not just the highest-profile encampments in New York and Oakland, but also Detroit, Portland OR, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, and several other major US cities.
The circumstances of those cities vary wildly. In some, the encampments were on public property; in others (like Zuccotti), they weren’t. In some (like Portland OR), damage to park soil, grass, and plants was an issue; in some, the campers set up on pavement. Same for sanitation and for the relationship of campers (sometimes good, sometimes not) to the politically well-connected businesses often adjoining the encampments’ central locations. In some encampments, factions of black bloc anarchists or other itchy youth have led to property destruction or tense confrontations with law enforcement. In some places, that simply hasn’t been an issue.
The reason Quan’s mention of a conference call involving 18 cities – most of whom have apparently followed up with coordinated eviction places – is significant is that it suggests the public rationales for eviction given by political and law enforcement leaders in each city are bullshit. Sure, a lot of these encampments pose problems for their host cities, from sanitation to depressed business to the costs of police overtime. But the “same situation” these 18 cities (and many more) have in common isn’t any one of these problems – it’s the deep desire not to have dirty fucking hippies parked in a visible place they don’t “belong,” and, beyond that, having them question the legitimacy of the very processes that provide local politicians their power.
I honestly cannot remember leaders of multiple cities banding together like this to coordinate a response to local demonstrations. While organizations like the National Conference of Mayors routinely meet and consult to exchange ideas and advocate for urban-oriented legislation, this sort of cooperation smacks of federal coordination at some level.
That said, such evictions are attacking symbols, not the Occupy movement itself. For starters, while the encampments of a few dozen cities have been evicted or withered away, hundreds remain, and in many more support actions are ongoing even without a central 24/7 encampment. Occupation was always a tactic, not the end, and recent actions like Bank Transfer Day, occupations or picketing at bank branches, and occupations of foreclosed properties (business and private) have substantially expanded the young movement’s repertoire of tactics. In any particular city, there are an almost infinite number of places to occupy, a similar number of deserving targets to protest, a wide variety of available tactics, and, at least for the moment, a lot of energy for making that happen.
The evictions we’re seeing this week remind me of the periodic sweeps some cities indulge in to clear out their homeless populations. They don’t, of course; they just waste a lot of time and energy pushing the homeless from one neighborhood to another. Only jobs and affordable housing and health care programs get people off the streets.
Similarly, whether the public or political leaders like a particular tactic or not, the Occupy Movement has identified a problem that a large chunk of the public recognizes as real: that our political and economic systems are rigged to benefit the one percent and to screw everyone else. The Occupy movement is not about encampments; it’s about withdrawing the consent of the governed from that rigged system, and creating the political space to force a fairer system. It may or may not be effective in the long run, but the demand to address that issue, now that it has been loudly named, is not going away. No matter how many members of the one percent are in on the next conference call. –Geov Parrish