Occupy Wall Street faces uncertain future

A protester affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement is arrested by police officers on Beaver Street in the Financial District on Nov. 17, 2011 in New York City. Protesters attempted to shut down the New York Stock Exchange today, blocking roads and tying up traffic in Lower Manhattan.
Getty Images/Andrew Burton

NEW YORK - There weren't many people to get in the way of the sidewalk cleaning machine zigzagging its way through Zuccotti Park on Friday morning, one day after a "Day of Action" protest that generated smaller crowds than organizers and police anticipated. About 20 bored private security workers in orange vests stood in small groups inside the metal barriers surrounding the spiritual home of the "Occupy" movement; perhaps two-dozen protesters milled around or sat against the wall under blankets.

Outside the barrier, a heavily tattooed man whose sign identified him as "Outlaw Bobby Steele" held a sign that read "Goldman Sucks"; inside, occasional dustups would flare up, such as when one security guard's efforts to get a homeless man out of the park prompted protesters to ask police, "are you going to do anything about the assault that happened right here?" (There was one entrance to the park, guarded by three security officials; it was foreboding enough that I asked if the park was on lockdown before they stepped aside and let me in.)

Such interactions attracted the dozen or so journalists on hand to crowd in, cameras in hand, prompting frustrated police officers, an edge in their voice, to warn the journalists they needed to step back. Occasionally a call-and-response would spring up, with dreadlocked white college students and hard-looking men in leather jackets repeating each speaker's words with varying levels of enthusiasm.

It would be a mistake to read too much into the past-its-prime vibe pervading the park Friday morning; it was early in the day, and many of the most passionate backers of the movement were still recovering (or in jail) following Thursday's protests. But in the wake of the NYPD's overnight raid that cleared the park of tents, it was clear that the physical movement was struggling to figure out what comes next.

"We're reorganizing in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, of the destruction of this enclave, so naturally it takes a bit of time to reconstitute our full vitality," said protester Robert Reiss, who suggested that protesters may work out shifts for occupying the park.

Another protester, Matt Sky, acknowledged that the fast-approaching winter and the clearing of the tents put the physical occupation in New York at risk. But he said that "even if the New York presence fizzles out, I think there's a global movement now."

"So we'll see people in L.A., in sunny California, continuing," said Sky. "And it's really an idea. And it does need to go beyond the sign-holding, it needs to become something more tangible."

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The ideas behind the movement, protesters acknowledged, have been pushed somewhat to the back burner as media coverage has focused on the situation in the park and protesters' clashes with police. Philip Shearin, a young Episcopal chaplain who was among the protesters, suggested that's because issues like income inequality simply aren't as good a story for the media - "The violence and the brutality - it's more glamorous, you'll sell more papers, you'll get more clicks," he said.

But Sky argued that the "coverage of this protest basically is making [the issues] a dinner table topic that would otherwise be ignored," even if it's often not focused on those issues themselves.

"The clashes - maybe that's the spicy part of the story, but the message, is really what I think is affecting people nationwide and worldwide," he said.

And it's undeniable that the clashes have their upside. The Occupy movement got an early boost after video of a police officer pepper-spraying protesters generated outrage; subsequent clashes have galvanized protesters and helped get the protesters' message more media coverage. (Images like this one, from Portland, have instantly become iconic.)  Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to evict those camping out in the park, meanwhile, may have been the best possible outcome for a movement that was increasingly becoming known for allegedly lawless behavior, thanks in part to campaigns against the protest by the New York Post and other conservative media outlets.

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On Friday, a man held up a photograph showing a bloodied protester from Thursday's rally and implored those around him to put the picture on social media sites; this was their brother, he told the protesters to murmurs of approval.

Still, while the occupiers pointed to polls that showed that Americans support their movement, there was a palpable sense that those who were braving the cold Friday were the true believers - those still fighting the good fight after the celebrities had come and gone, the ones for whom the battle against income inequality is more than a passing fad. Reese Golchin, who said he was affiliated with Occupy Los Angeles, assured them that they were in the right.

"There is no glory in being cold and getting struck and being mocked," he said. "But you will all come down on the right side of history."

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