Occupy Wall Street celebrated its two-month anniversary on Thursday, Nov. 17, just two days after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the police take down the protesters' encampment in Zuccotti Park. Hundreds of protesters reoccupied the park at least temporarily during a day of action on Thursday, which also included an attempt to prevent the morning bell from ringing at the New York Stock Exchange, followed by a rally in Union Square and consciousness-raising efforts at 16 subway hubs in all five boroughs.
But the police crackdown on Tuesday forced the protesters to re-evaluate their strategy and make tough decisions, including whether to try to retake Zuccotti Park or to focus more on other types of action, like marches and canvassing. IBTimes spoke to Heather Gautney, a sociology professor and social movements expert at Fordham University in Manhattan, about how the movement has regrouped since Tuesday and where it's headed.
IBTimes: Do you think Occupy Wall Street is moving into a new phase following the eviction from Zuccotti Park? Might they focus more, for instance, on marches and other demonstrations than on occupation?
Gautney: Just from overhearing things, I don't think so. I was there the night that the park was sort of being reopened -- after they'd cleared it, it was still closed and there were a lot of police, and then around 6 o'clock they opened it and started searching people. The crowds around the park were huge, and as soon as the first person got in, everyone was jumping around. I really get the sense that Zuccotti Park has meaning for the people that were occupying and also for people who weren't, who would just go there and hang out. I don't think they're ready to give that up yet.
I think people still want to fight for that space, even if the sleeping out doesn't work, to still occupy the park. I wouldn't be surprised, either, if they tried to occupy other spaces illegally, other parks. I don't get the sense that people are afraid of getting arrested or of civil disobedience. New York has an extremely large support base, so we can kind of withstand arrest. [In smaller cities,] they just don't have the numbers to be able to sustain those kinds of hits. But [in New York,] I don't think that it's just going to remain in the realm of demonstrations. I think they want to stay really contentious, because they can.
IBTimes: Do you think it is a good strategy for the Occupy Wall Street protesters to continue focusing on Zuccotti Park, or do you think they should consider other strategies?
Gautney: There are so many different local Occupies doing so many different types of things that I think, if this group here in New York remains focused on camp occupation and then these kind of periodic demonstrations like today -- I think that they're getting an enormous amount of attention, they're staying contentious, they're picking their targets wisely. I do think that maintaining the occupation is smart.
There is this effort to create an alternative kind of political community. I think that was one of the goals at the outset. Now that these people -- they've started this thing, they've been living with each other for a couple of months fighting this, and I think those communal ties are powerful right now. I don't think they've lost an inch of momentum, and that's the kind of movement that they want to be. They're decidedly leaderless for that reason. There's that piece of it that other Occupies don't necessarily have. They haven't had the kind of contentious interactions [with police] that build those relationships ... [and] I think that they need to keep that.
IBTimes: Many people thought the movement would fizzle out after a few weeks, or that the media would just stop paying attention to it, but that clearly has not happened. Do you think the movement will continue to get this level of attention in the coming weeks and months?
Gautney: It's such a contradictory relationship this movement has with the media. There are strong elements that are very anti-corporate media. I think part of it was a function of some of the bad press that was coming out ... so I think there was a probably an internal decision to limit interactions with the press. But at the same time, the people from so many press agencies have kind of camped out there, and I think they've played a really important role in getting this movement in the public consciousness.
Whether or not they're planning actions that attract media attention, regardless of how they're relating to the media, I think they're going to get media attention because of the numbers and because of the way -- I think Bloomberg has played directly into this. The way he is responding so negatively to the protest, it's news. It's relevant when he's rich and he's powerful and he has not really adequately solved the problem. People in New York are supporting the movement, so it interrogates his legitimacy.
Until the movement just becomes boring, it's going to have the attention. And it's got this contentious momentum, so I think that's always going to be interesting and always be newsworthy until they just stop, and that's not going to happen anytime soon. After spending more time down there [Zuccotti Park] and being aware of the level of contributions they've been receiving ... I think people would stay there in two feet of snow if they could. They're really committed, and they have resources.
IBTimes: You said you think Mayor Bloomberg has played into the protest. Just in terms of political strategy, do you think it was a bad move for him to order the clearing of Zuccotti Park?
Gautney: I think it did give the movement momentum, and not just people in the camp, but people who were supporting the movement. It just played right into that narrative of, 'We're protesting, and look at the problem of corruption, and here we have the state defending the corporations' -- that's sort of the narrative of the movement, is that relationship. And I think here, again -- it's like a cliché, almost; the billionaire mayor is now ordering his privately funded police force to clear these people out, and the kind of subheading is that he is defending his own interests and he's as corrupt as the rest of them and he's not taking into account the right to free expression and all that stuff.
But I think his big mistake has been that his personality is getting the better of him. Instead of taking a measured approach and not saying too much, he's shown his annoyance and his political disagreement with the content of the movement. I think other leaders, especially leaders at the federal level, have been very careful not to be too degrading, not to treat this group like they're misdirected youth, and he's kind of done all that. He basically set himself up as the enemy really early on, and that also plays into this narrative. It's just been a setup of a kind of cat-and-mouse situation. It makes for a good story, but I think it has really cost him in the polls.
IBTimes: Is there anything else that has struck you about how the movement has developed since September?
Gautney: It's really diverse. Some of them -- there are people whose homes are being foreclosed on, and they're going and defending these homes. I think that was going on in Minnesota. That's the kind of stuff that really keeps with the spirit of occupation and solving the problem of the mortgage crisis, which is where all this is really stemming from. Zuccotti is this major, major focal point, but I'm finding it increasingly interesting, these kinds of really direct, action-oriented things that people are doing.