Will The Occupy Movement Fade Now That Most of the Occupations Have Been Cleared?

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Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, "White Boy: A Memoir," was published in the spring of 2002.

The tent cities have been bulldozed and the parks have been cleared.  Big-city mayors see clean spaces, washed and sanitized, and hope that the Occupations were a bad dream.  Obama supporters hope that the three months of protest represented a brief detour in a progressive movement that will ultimately come to its senses and concentrate on re-electing the president and campaigning for Democratic candidates for Congress, realizing—with the help of a collection of bizarre and frighteningly ill-informed Republican presidential aspirants—that the most important initiatives to achieve a more just society take place at the polls, not in the streets.

It’s a plausible scenario, to be sure, neat and rational.  As many liberal pundits have pointed out, taking practical steps to address the economic inequality issues Occupy Wall Street has raised—such as shifting the tax burden from the working class and middle class to the very wealthy—can only be done by creating electoral majorities in favor of such policies that don’t currently exist, and that can only be achieved through the “grunt work” of voter registration and organizing election campaigns on behalf of progressive candidates.  And there is no question that many constituencies who were uneasily allied with the Occupy movements, particularly labor unions, plan to do just that in coming months and coming years.

But I am not sure that the experience of the last three months can be neatly excised from the national consciousness and the energy of Occupy supporters neatly directed towards electoral activity

First of all, the experience of direct democracy in the Occupy movement has had a profound, even transformative effect, on those who have participated, one that will not be so easy to persuade those who have experienced it to relinquish.  The young people in this movement, part of an entire generation facing a stagnant job market and crippling debt, discovered they had the power to make the whole world pay attention to what they were saying by occupying public spaces, working outside normal political channels, and refusing to anoint leaders to speak for them.  But it was more than the reaction of the outside world that was transformative.  It was the transformation of the Occupy spaces themselves into places where free discussion and debate could flourish in ways that existed nowhere else in the society, certainly not in increasingly corporatized and bureaucratized universities, stressed-filled public schools under pressure to deliver higher test scores, or workplaces ruled by dictatorial managers cognizant that a tight job market assured them of worker compliance.  When Occupiers chanted “This is what democracy looks like,” they were proclaiming what few people have been willing to acknowledge—that lived democracy and freedom of expression, as opposed to the mere ideals, have been eroding in the United States for some time, as institutions become more hierarchical and wealth has been more concentrated at the top. 

What the Occupy movement created was a space for a no-holds-barred discussion of a huge array of issues where people, thanks to the mic-check method of repeating comments, actually listened to one another.  Do such free zones exist in our schools, universities and workplaces?  If they did, the Occupy movements would not have generated the levels of participation they did!  There is a reason why Occupy movements sprung up in over three hundred towns and cities and that is because they embodied a deeply felt need for freedom of expression as well as a hunger to address issues of economic inequality and the mal-distribution of wealth.

Which brings me to the next point about why this movement is likely to persist:  the reaction of authorities, whether mayors, police chiefs, or college presidents, to its emergence.  The size, technological sophistication, and at times the astonishing violence of police mobilizations against Occupy protests dramatized to the nation, and the world, the degree to which the United States has become a police/national security state, willing to go to extraordinary attempts to intimidate its own citizens.  To immigrants, and to people living in minority and working-class communities (particularly young men), this insight is nothing new—they have experienced intimidation by police forces and other government authorities on an almost daily basis, not only in their neighborhoods, but also in prisons and detention centers.  But until the Occupy movement, most middle-class Americans including college-educated youth, could ignore abuses of police power or pretend that the most extreme examples (the police murder of an unarmed Sean Bell in Queens) were more the exception than the rule.

But now, for three months, the people of the United States have been exposed to a steady array of images:  police forces using helicopters, bulldozers, sound cannons, tear gas and pepper spray not only against protesters peacefully assembling in universities and public parks, but against representatives of the press covering these events, and rumors of the involvement of federal officials.  Not only do such police tactics borrowed from the playbook used by police in gentrifying cities to intimidate and contain minority youth, they draw upon post-9/11 national security protocols used to combat terrorism such as closing bridges and subways and placing limits on what photographs might appear in the press!

In the repression of the Occupy movement, images of free speech under attack were created that cannot be neatly excised from the national imagination, any more than  pictures of Bull Connor unleashing police dogs and water hoses on teenage marchers in Birmingham in 1963.

If the Occupy movement’s showed us, in words and deeds, “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” those attacking the Occupations showed the world, albeit unintentionally “This is What a Police State Looks Like.”

It would be nice, our liberal friends tell us, if we could forget all of this unpleasantness and go back to the days of the first Obama presidential campaign when youth, idealism, and energy were directed to electing the first black president.  Now, they say, it’s time to give him a second term, with a strong Democratic Congress, so he can finish the job he started.

But given what has happened in the last three months, I don’t think that is likely to happen.  The genie has been let out of the bottle. Young people who have had a taste of lived democracy of a kind they had never experienced and then watched it snuffed out by highly militarized police units using war-on-terror tactics will not become obedient doorbell ringers for a president who ignored their protest and may have secretly encouraged its suppression.

The Occupy movement may not take the same form as it did this fall, but it is very likely to reinvent itself in forms that will not please its liberal would-be controllers, or its conservative critics.

 And that is a very good thing for the country.

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