OWS: What’s next?
What now? New York has been leading the amorphous, headless beast that is Occupy Wall Street since day one back on September 17, and stalwart occupiers across the nation – now mostly evicted from their tent cities – are turning to the former residents of Zuccotti Park for guidance on what comes next.
This past Friday evening in Times Square provided a glimpse of the shape the OWS of the future will take. At 6pm, in front of the tourist-packed bleachers beneath the unmistakable shimmering Coke sign, a small gathering of boisterous activists stood in a circle. An OWS regular in Lennon-esque sunglasses directed the group in occupy-themed protest songs, flanked by a ring of media that came close to outnumbering them. The humble singalong marked the beginning of Occupy Broadway – a 24-hour performance by bands, theatre and dance companies, puppet troupes and more. The actual performances took place in the privately owned public Paramount Plaza at 1633 Broadway at 50th, blocks from Times Square and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra kicked off the boisterous proceedings, which occurred with limited interference from the NYPD.
It felt like a party, but with a purpose – to take control of the symbolic centre of the city, a core that has been all but completely coopted by corporate interests. Reverend Billy of the Church of Life After Shopping offered up a typically lively sermon that tidily summed up how those in the crowd view Broadway’s metamorphosis since the ‘90s: “Rudolph Guiliani and Mickey Mouse and the New York Times started arresting the interesting people on our sidewalks here,” shouted Billy through a comically large white megaphone. “The people with uncertain hygiene, the people who thought they were Jimi Hendrix, the Shakespearean monologists with no apparent audience. We love those people…at one time this was an international commons. There were 315 original dramas every season. Now, it’s a Republican theme park. Until today.”
There is a shift occurring, and though it was forced upon the movement by police actions, it is a necessary shift – from round-the-clock occupation of physical space, to an ongoing series of direct actions that aim at outreach and “reclaiming space.”
A gathering on Saturday morning in Zuccotti Park was also indicative of how OWS plans to grow the movement in the coming months. Many of the city’s religious leaders gathered with occupiers to make an impassioned plea to the heads of churches and places of worship that have yet to open their doors to the movement to do so. “The Occupy is the force that will revitalize traditional Christianity in the United States, or signal its moral, social and political irrelevancy” said journalist Chris Hedges, addressing the crowd. The gathering also celebrated the launch of Tidal, a self-published journal containing essays by intellectuals and occupiers, what the editors described as “a space for our voices to be heard.” On the back of the program for the day’s speakers – which included journalist Chris Hedges and Bishop George Packard – was yet another global call to action, phrased thusly: “Proposed National Call to Re-Occupy: December 17 we call on the displaced occupations across the nation to re-occupy outdoor spaces…we will take space and celebrate victory in our new occupations.”
The intentional communities that were the tent cities were a powerful first step, a place where the process of horizontal democracy that in many ways defines the movement could be developed, and where people ready and willing to work for change could find each other. Yet as time has passed, managing the ongoing logistical problems within these communities – violence, substance abuse, cooption by those in desperate need of social services – was consuming so much time and energy that the broader purpose of the gathering was being forced to the side (at least in the camps I’ve visited).
As the heart of OWS moves from city parks to focused indoor working groups planning purposeful actions, those who have been fiercely committed to the ideological goals of OWS have the opportunity to shift their focus from the day-to-day logistics of running the camps to spreading OWS’s message of economic equality past the metal barriers that line Zuccotti Park, to the rest of the 99 percent.
As I listened to impassioned speeches by inspired activists, it was hard not to notice that the numbers were small. Two challenges now face those who now steer OWS: maintaining momentum in the absence of the 24-hour media coverage that constant police surveillance brings, and growing their numbers by finding a way to appeal to more mainstream demographics. Looking around Zuccotti at the couple hundred people huddled in the cold, was a little discouraging, but listening to them speak was not. One protester, 25-year-old Zachary Kamel, was particularly inspiring. Here’s what he had to say: