Did Zuccotti Matter?

Did Zuccotti Matter?

Nick Serpe: Did Zuccotti Matter?

Ever since the media noticed it, Occupy Wall Street has been asked to stop play-acting utopia and to create a platform to submit to the judgment of the American people. There was a misunderstanding, I thought, in the expectation that OWS could simply move on to the ?next stage??that something as inchoate as the occupations across the country would proceed through discrete strategic phases. But we learned this week that eighteen mayors?along with, according to one report, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI?have been in private conference over the semi-permanent protests their cities have been forced to suffer. OWS might have lacked a coordinated national strategy, but the mayors and their federal friends did not.

Mayor Bloomberg even seems to think he?s done the occupiers a favor in forcing them to move out of the park and into the great marketplace of ideas. ?Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags,? he said at his press conference yesterday (as if he hadn?t already tried to end the occupation, after one night, and then one month). ?Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.? Bloomberg and co., along with their truncheon-swinging security forces, may indeed have handed Phase Two to the occupations on a platter; if they think that phase will entail occupiers moving from the streets to policy summits, they are mistaken.

The reason the occupation?s ?arguments? have gotten airplay, of course, is because of how they performed them; and besides, Occupy Wall Street doesn?t just want to enter into the debate, but to change its preconditions. That doesn?t mean it is above seeking attention from a free press where the best arguments usually lose to the loudest ones. (Or a political system that operates on the same premises: see George Packer?s essay on the Senate, once called ?the world?s greatest deliberative body? but now ?an intimate room where men and women go to talk to themselves for the record.?) The atmosphere in Zuccotti Park was indeed loud, as well as bizarre, heart-wrenching, and spectacular. And that spectacle managed to dredge good ideas that had been submerged in, among other places, small magazines, blogs, and activist circles up to the media?s glittery (and NYC-based) surface.

Despite Liberty Plaza?s usefulness as a media focus and a source of inspiration for the hundreds of occupations around the country and globe, the occupiers? intense mourning over the violent destruction of the village at Zuccotti probably appears narrow-minded or irrational from the outside. The malcontents of Liberty Plaza, some of whom insist that ?the occupation is the demand,? might not disagree with the ?irrational? part. I left Zuccotti Park on the evening of September 17 thinking that occupying a concrete plaza in Lower Manhattan in order to reshape society was quixotic and doomed to fail, but also feeling that swelling of the heart that has the effect of butting skepticism aside. Just under a month later, in the early morning of October 14, a few thousand of us stood our ground against Bloomberg and Brookfield?s threatened eviction; to be there, to be a part of the roar, when we learned that the billionaire mayor had backed down, was to experience the romance of struggle, however slight and evanescent in the scheme of things.

But Zuccotti Park was more than the beating heart of the Occupy mobilization: it was, at least before it got too crowded, a staging and planning ground; a place to encounter old friends and make new ones; and, despite its abstract character to those who never visited, a concrete space for a number of struggles to coalesce and then spring forth. Moreover, the strategy of occupation had the incidental effect of drawing the attention of wealthy white citizens to a couple issues that had been easy for most of them to ignore: the criminalization of homelessness, and the transformation of urban policing following the ?quality of life? focus of the 1990s and the ?public safety? ethos of the decade after September 11.

The dramas between police and protesters also had the upshot, at least in New York, of bringing out the tensions in Bloomberg?s own utopian vision for the city: a smoothly functioning paradise for high-end consumption, financial services, and luxury tourism?in other words, a playground for the 1 percent. ?We?re not going to allow people to stop commerce,? said Bloomberg yesterday, ?and to stop people?s right to go around and express themselves.? Fred Armisen, Bloomberg?s Saturday Night Live impersonator, captured it beautifully in the cold open to an episode last month: ?And while you?re in town, why not cap off a day of protest with dinner at one of New York?s many world-class restaurants, or take in a Broadway show like Mary Poppins, currently at the New Amsterdam Theater??

Without Zuccotti, Occupy Wall Street does lose something, though it?s hard to say right now precisely what. New York City, on the other hand, has gained a whole lot of energetic and politicized people without an occupation to run, who will be looking for other things to spend their time doing. For now, some of their attention will be directed to finding new places to occupy, whether successfully or not. Others will shift tactics and strategies, in directions that can?t yet be predicted. There is one prediction I am willing to make: after adding plutocracy and immiseration to the ?national conversation,? Occupy Wall Street will not be content to move aside and let the respectable people converse. Tomorrow, it?s back to the streets.

Image: Zuccotti Park after the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment (David Shankbone, Flickr creative commons)