The Occupy movement in the US may have disappeared from media headlines. But it has not disappeared from the streets of many US cities. However, dropping attendances and ongoing police repression have caused problems for the movement.
Inspired by protests in the Arab world and Europe, the wave of occupations began in September last year. Thousands gathered in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in New York to protest against the system that promotes inequality and undemocratic rule by the super-rich — the “1%”. Similar protest sites sprang up across the US and many other countries.
Camps in many cities, including in New York, were dismantled in November and December when police launched violent raids, injuring and arresting many people in the process.
Recent evictions of camps took place in Washington DC, Austin, Miami, Maine and Pittsburgh, In These Times said on February 8. Authorities used sanitation laws and rules against camping to enforce the clearing of the sites.
Occupy Newark was also threatened with eviction. And police inspected Washington's second occupation site in Freedom Square to enforce sanitation rules and restrictions on materials allowed on site, ntdtv.com said on February 7.
Evicted protesters vowed to continue the struggle, either by setting up new camps or exploring new ways to engage communities.
Despite the loss of camp sites, Occupy groups in many places have been able to highlight issues in other ways.
Occupy Wall Street West — which included more than 50 community groups and Californian Occupy groups — held a series of non-violent occupations of San Francisco's financial district on January 20.
Thousands of protesters “took over public/private spaces in banks, hotel lobbies, and financial/corporate office spaces with the purpose of shutting down business as usual”, a news and analysis site on Occupy, The North Star, said on January 25.
The group's demands were to “end corporate personhood, save homes from evictions and foreclosures, and stop attacks on democracy, education, and livelihoods”.
Occupy groups on the US west coast also helped fight against union-busting attacks on dock workers in Longview, Washington, labornotes.org said on January 23. The Longshore Workers Union and transnational grain exporter EGT reached a tentative agreement on January 23 after workers and solidarity activists waged a seven-month campaign of non-violent disruption.
The announcement of the agreement came before a planned blockade of a ship in Longview port. Solidarity actions of Occupy protesters were generally welcomed by workers. However, tensions rose between some unionists and occupiers over leadership of the dispute, labornotes.org said.
Protesters in Indiana also launched “Occupy the Super Bowl” to protest against anti-worker laws that were passed the week before Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl on February 5. About 7000 people marched on the Indiana Statehouse against the laws on February 1, In These Times said on February 3.
Sports and politics writer Dave Zirin said at The Nation on January 31 that protesters used the higher-than-usual media presence in the city to highlight the large wealth disparity and the reality of life for working families.
Many other Occupy groups have stayed active by holding public meetings to discuss the way forward for the movement. Protests are likely to escalate in the US spring.
One topic that has been the subject of debate has been the desire of a minority of protesters to confront police.
It was sparked by an incident on January 28, when more than 1000 activists from Occupy Oakland tried to take over an unused building for their headquarters, Socialist Worker said on February 6. The lead-up to the action was marked by organisers threatening to shut down the airport if their demands were not met.
Riot police easily stopped the attempt to take over the Kaiser building, using tear gas and pepper spray on protesters. Some protesters retaliated by charging police with shields and throwing projectiles, The North Star said on January 30.
Later, a few hundred protesters regrouped and tried to occupy a different building. Police surrounded them and carried out mass arrests. Many protesters were brutally beaten in the process, held for several days and mistreated in prison, Socialist Worker said.
This was compounded by a small number of protesters breaking into city hall that night, where they vandalised offices and burned the US flag.
In a February 4 ZMag article, Oakland activist Josh Healey criticised the tactic of choosing to confront police in a hopeless situation and the vandalism that played into the hands of authorities and media who were able to smear the whole movement and ignore the brutal police violence.
Healey said: “Denounced this time not only by the city but many allies and Occupy participants themselves, the January 28 action has only further divided the already-tenuous movement in the Bay Area and around the country.”
Healey said several future actions were in jeopardy as other community groups were now reluctant to work with Occupy Oakland. “When it comes to fake revolutionaries versus actual community leaders, which side are we on?”
The debate on how to overcome this problem, and the bigger problem of engaging the wider community, has only just begun.
The future of the movement remains uncertain, but it is clear that it has altered the course of US and world politics for the foreseeable future.
As Mike Marqusee said in the February-March edition of Red Pepper: “Perceptions of the possible have been redefined. Horizons broadened. We do not have to be slaves of the financial sector, sacrificial victims to appease angry fiscal gods. Whatever else, this systemic challenge means the struggles of the coming years will be fought out on different terrain.”