On Tuesday morning, just a few hours into the post-eviction era of Occupy Wall Street, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times tweeted: ‘Could #Bloomberg be a secret Occupy Wall Streeter? He seems to have just revived the movement.’ Official reaction in any form motivates and inspires the protesters. By driving them from Zuccotti Park, the mayor put OWS back into the news cycle, just when major media outlets seemed to be growing bored of the story. The eviction unintentionally pressed a giant ‘reset’ button, solving two intractable problems at once: the growing presence of homeless, mentally ill or unstable people in the park, and the lack of a graceful exit strategy in case the winter weather proved overwhelming.
But the first test was clearly going to be the demonstrations on 17 November. If participation was low, it would be spun as proof that the protests were dying out, aimless and unmoored without the home base of Zuccotti Park. In the event, of course, the turnout was massive, the mood buoyant and determined, the atmosphere electric.
This despite significant police misconduct and worse. Over the course of the day, I witnessed at least a dozen capricious arrests, a few unprovoked acts of violence, and constant intimidation. More than 25 journalists have apparently been arrested. The early morning action in front of the Stock Exchange led to stand-offs, beatings and arrests. Checkpoints sprang up around the financial district, and only people able to produce corporate employee IDs were allowed through to neighbouring streets or subway entrances. Later in the morning, the police cordoned off Zuccotti Park entirely, not letting anyone in or out until they had tracked down and bloodied a guy who had provoked them by kicking barricades. At around 4 p.m., cops blockaded protesters at 14th Street and 5th Avenue.
But then there was the march to Foley Square. The marchers split up to get around the police line at 14th Street. I was with a group of about 1000, walking against the traffic to prevent the cops from catching up with us. Almost every bus, truck or taxi driver honked or hooted support. A quick check on Twitter showed we were one of at least five splinter marches of the same size, and that 10,000 people were already in Foley Square. I’m ashamed to confess my political sentimentality, but the OWS chants – ‘This is what democracy looks like!’ and ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ – never felt so cathartic.
The coming weeks will show what the eviction from Zuccotti Park will really mean for OWS. Though it hasn’t made for attention-grabbing headlines, there has been steady progress on organisation, infrastructure and planning. The meetings are long, and full of squabbles and all the usual sorts of frustration you get in any meeting. Euphoric skips down Canal Street notwithstanding, the future of OWS will be determined by the level of commitment to the issues, not the level of commitment to the park.
One can grieve for the destruction of the micro-society that the encampment represented, for the loss of the library, for the demolition of the kitchen, for the end of the carnival. A month ago it seemed that a sphere of genuine political possibility was opening up, where before there had been none. Now we appear to be witnessing something even more extraordinary: a previously passive population becoming politicised right in front of our eyes.