It took a couple of hours on 15 November for hundreds of New York Police Department officers, under the orders of mayor Michael Bloomberg for what he claimed were deteriorating health and safety concerns, to tear down the encampment that protesters spent eight weeks constructing in a privately owned public space they came to know as home.
But a week after more than 200 protesters were arrested during a day of action that marked Occupy Wall Street‘s two-month anniversary, the question of how the movement became so vulnerable to an attack lingers.
Protesters were initially portrayed as a nascent movement that objected to what they deemed to be unfair bank regulations, but as the weeks passed and the spotlight turned to the voices of the radicals and clashes with the police, the occupiers were ever more characterized as a purposeless group. A 16 November poll by Public Policy Polling [pdf] showed support among voters was waning, too.
Man Bartlett, an artist and part-time occupier from Bushwick, said it was only natural that the public lost interest and the conversation grew stale. “Like with any new relationship, in the initial phase will be a lot of excitement and a lot of support. As the movement develops and continues to grow, that initial honeymoon period will be over,” he said. “Once the story wasn’t ‘What are the demands?’ the story became more about ‘What are the internal struggles that the movement was having?”
Occupiers survived their first, temporary expulsion by the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, on 14 October, but issues larger than sanitation began to take precedence over the following weeks. Zuccotti Park had become a breeding ground for problems the protesters could have avoided without a physical location.
The general assembly doubled in time but halved in efficiency and its consensus-based form of decision-making, led by a team of rotating facilitators who spoke loudly and used hand gestures to move through agendas, began drawing fewer occupiers.
A drifter could attend the open meeting and have as much say as an occupier in how thousands of dollars were spent. This ultimately led to the creation of the “spokes council”, essentially a smaller assembly that dealt primarily with finances and logistics. Other issues in the park, including a sexual assault and reported drug use, as well as infighting between some of the more than 80 working groups also flared.
Alec Vincent, a 21-year-old occupier and culinary school dropout from Bay Ridge who made his living at Zuccotti as a shoe shiner, attributed the squabbling to the park’s hippie-homeless vibe and a visible difference between occupiers’ backgrounds. “Even though we’re all on the same socioeconomic level, there’s a class distinction,” he said. “I’m more afraid of an outbreak of violence within the park than from police.”
Eight hours before being ousted, Vincent said eviction wasn’t likely but acknowledged that the emergence of a visible hierarchy had begun to elevate tensions between occupiers. “There’s always leaders. You can’t not have leaders,” he said. “They’re just not official.”
A member of the occupation’s security team, Freddy Cepeda, of Bushwick, saw a leadership core materializing but thought eviction was inevitable because the park had become too unstable. “There’s people that were there for the right reasons and there were people that were there for the wrong reasons,” said Cepeda, 26. “It was just too much.”
At its peak, Occupy Wall Street raised more than $500,000 and drew 10,000 protestors for a demonstration in Times Square in mid-October. Thousands more took the streets in, among other cities, London, Berlin, Tel Aviv and Rome.
But as winter has crept closer, the occupiers erected so many tents that it became difficult to walk through the one-block park. The protesters had outgrown a home they were never entitled to and the mayor wanted to act before the situation worsened. So less than two days after similar occupations in Portland and Oakland were dismantled and the press was largely barred from reporting the raids, he gave the orders to take Zuccotti.
Bartlett, 30, called the move “deeply problematic” but wasn’t shocked the eviction finally happened. For nearly two months, he watched the movement’s initial concern of the bank bailout ramifications erode due to escalating problems within the park and the meaning of the “We are the 99%” becoming largely misunderstood.
“The problem is that not just that the disparity exists, but that the percentage of that one percent that is really exploiting the system and exploiting a huge percentage of the American public,” said Bartlett, who was arrested during the Wall Street demonstrations last Thursday and later pleaded guilty to one count of disorderly conduct. “And it’s difficult to put that into a tagline.”
He added that the movement that began with a tweet from Adbusters had become more structured and self-regulated. Long gone are the days when one “mic check” would be echoed by all of Zuccotti Park and the nights when hundreds of occupiers attended a general assembly that took only one hour. The leaders that few would acknowledge even existed had enacted enough rules that the city within a city was slowly, and publicly, crumbling so that only Guy Fawkes masks and NYPD barricades would be left.
From all this, it’s clear that Occupy Wall Street is down but not out – at least not yet. The movement is sitting on nearly $450,000 and still has encampments in major cities and college campuses across the country. Occupiers lost their park, but they’re staying in the public eye through coverage of how police officers treat the press and students, social media and smaller events, like the recent drum circle outside the mayor’s residence.
The occupation’s immediate future in New York isn’t set in stone. It’s regrouping, analyzing the past two months and hashing out a next move. For one, protestors gathered Sunday night at another location, Duarte Square, and organizers announced both a new “tenting” initiative and a plan to eventually take the space.