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Occupy Movement Finding Focus in Wake of Eviction of Zuccotti

Occupy Wall Street protesters returned in force last night to Zuccotti Park, but they encountered new restrictions. In particular, they had to enter the park single file, and they couldn’t bring in tents, tarps or sleeping bags, or even lie down on the park grounds. Obviously law enforcement was applying the term “tents” broadly, because they were disallowing entry to people with accordions or a carton of mashed potatoes. The park now closes at 10pm. Some protesters did stay overnight, but only a handful.

Protesters are attempting to regroup after the eviction and new restrictions. They do seem to agree that they can use this eviction as fuel for future efforts.

“I think everyone’s still in the processing mode,” said Nate Barchus, 23, a protester from Providence, R.I., who acknowledged feeling rage and disappointment. “This will be a catalyst. This reminds everyone who was occupying exactly why they were occupying.”

The rest of that report makes an effort to justify New York City’s actions, highlighting the unreasonable, unruly, allegedly dangerous behavior of the protesters. That anything could justify the gleeful beatings that took place Tuesday night is a bit spurious. But what this characterization has done, and the ensuing wrangling over the physical occupation rather than the message behind it, has been to sap at the public popularity of Occupy Wall Street. The vast majority of Americans have not visited an Occupy protest; they can only judge it by what they hear. And there’s been a concerted effort to paint the protests as radical, lawless congregations of animals. Thus, though the message remains popular, you see the reduction in support.

In late September we found that 73% of voters supported the ‘Buffett rule’ with only 16% opposed. And in October we found that Senators resistant to raising taxes on those who make more than a million dollars a year could pay a price at the polls. I don’t think any of that has changed- what the downturn in Occupy Wall Street’s image suggests is that voters are seeing the movement as more about the ‘Occupy’ than the ‘Wall Street.’ The controversy over the protests is starting to drown out the actual message.

In this sense, the focus on the evictions and the physical holding of space, driven not by the protesters but by the loosely coordinated effort from US mayors, has worked. It muddied the message and turned the issue into more of a tribal-based concern for law and order. For the mayors, that means continuing the crackdown. In Los Angeles, now home to the largest city with an active occupation, police chief Charlie Beck stated casually that officials are working on a timeline to dismantle the encampments.

But though this strategy has worked to an extent, it’s also true that every outrageous instance of police brutality or overreach has only grown the movement. The eviction of Zuccotti, which didn’t happen in the time frame of the new polling, is an example. So is the pepper spraying of an 84 year-old woman in Seattle. The civil rights movement very skillfully used these examples of repression and turned them into rallying cries for justice. The Occupy movement can do the same thing. And starting tomorrow with a nationwide wave of protests, they’ll get their first opportunity.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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