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Where Does The 'Occupy' Movement Go From Here?

  • Charles Recknagel

Protesters gathered again in New York's Zuccotti Park after it was re-opened on November 15. But they won't be allowed to camp there.

Protesters gathered again in New York's Zuccotti Park after it was re-opened on November 15. But they won't be allowed to camp there.

New York City officials took the "occupy" out of Occupy Wall Street by removing the protesters' tent camp from a downtown park, but that is not likely to spell the end of the movement.

In New York, police forcibly cleared the protest site at Zuccotti Park early on November 15, arresting some 200 people.

The action received strong legal backing later in the day, when a New York Supreme Court judge ruled that the protesters' constitutional right to free speech does not entitle them to camp out indefinitely in the plaza.

But the judge did not rule out continued protests, and by the end of the day protesters were allowed to return to the site but without the tents and electrical generators that had made the site a mini-city since September.

The protesters have vowed to continue their presence in the park and at similar camps elsewhere in the United States despite the crackdown.

The question now is how long the protesters can continue to gather outdoors as the weather grows colder.

It's a question Occupy movements in other countries face, too, as authorities in many cities start to take a harder line against the global protest phenomenon.

Given Ultimatums

In London, British officials have given activists who have camped out around St. Paul's Cathedral since mid-October until 6 p.m. on November 17 to remove their tents and equipment before high court proceedings are issued.

In Paris, where 300 protesters started occupying the city's financial district, La Defense, on November 4, officials have been tougher. The protest camp has been torn down almost daily by police forces and even blankets and food have been confiscated.

A protester is confronted by New York police officers as authorities cleared Zuccotti Park.

A protester is confronted by New York police officers as authorities cleared Zuccotti Park.

But as in New York and London, the protesters in Paris show no signs of giving up. After a call for help on Facebook, some 400 additional people swelled the camp at La Defense last week.

Since the Occupy movement began earlier this year, it has spread rapidly throughout Europe and beyond. In October, activists in more than 25 countries made calls for protests and there are now permanent tent camps in cities as diverse as Madrid and Kuala Lumpur.

Jason Hickel, an activist in the London protests and a lecturer at the London School of Economics, says the movement's goal at this stage is to generate awareness of problems and create a forum for discussing them, rather than put forward specific demands.

"At this stage, I would say that demands are not a good thing to have," Hickel says, "because I think the idea is to create an open space for critical conversation on a broader level, not just in the [local] occupations, but nationally, internationally, etc."

Open-Ended Movement

The protests in individual countries often focus on local issues, but what they have in common is a concern over economic inequality, high unemployment, and the influence of corporations -- particularly banks -- upon governments.

The Occupy movement has alarmed city authorities because for now it appears open-ended. As the tent camp in downtown New York grew, the mayor decided it amounted to a takeover of public space that obstructed free movement.

"From the beginning, I've said that the city has two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety and guaranteeing the protesters' First Amendment rights," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on November 15. "But when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public and our first responders must be the priority."

Russian police officers detain an activist during a copycat Occupy protest in central Moscow on November 7.

Russian police officers detain an activist during a copycat Occupy protest in central Moscow on November 7.

Hickel says that if authorities think removing tents will end the protest movement, they are wrong. But he also predicts that the movement itself will not continue occupying sites in city centers forever.

"I don't really see the Occupy movement as relying necessarily on the physical act of occupation for the entirety of its existence," Hickel says. "I think that the occupy phase is a very important initial phase, but I don't really see why it has to last another month, maybe two, because I think the issue is going to have to change and eventually we are going to have to move into a more demand-oriented mode."

He says the occupations have been important so far or creating a Facebook community but that physical occupation is not necessary in the long term to keep the movement alive.

That longer-term life will depend upon the movement's success in finding leaders within its ranks who can put forward specific demands.

Then the true test will begin: How to bring those demands in from the cold of a street movement and make them part of the political process so that real changes can be achieved.

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