Occupy Wall Street's Eviction Was a Lucky Break—Now What?

Zuccotti Park was cleared of Occupy Wall Street protesters this morning. It's time for the movement to lift up, take stock, and pitch a bigger tent.

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The scene from Zuccotti Park in the dark early hours of Tuesday morning were surreal and provocative and caught on tape and pixels. Could Occupy Wall Street have wanted it any other way?

The protesters were lucky to be kicked out of Zuccotti last night for two reasons -- the logistical reason and the macro reason. Logistically, these people weren't going to live on the concrete* through February, anyway. Eventually, they were going to leave. Last night's raid gives them a banner headline in newspapers across the country and lets this particular occupation with a bang instead of the whimper of a three-month trickle-out. Just as nationwide enthusiasm was starting to wane, the raid reminds the nation where the movement started.

But the geography of Occupy Wall Street can't become more important than its message. Whether there are tents in Zuccotti Park is secondary to the question of how do you turn a movement veering into a drug-and-violence protest into an inclusive campaign that non-marching liberals can feel a part of?

In the weeks before today, OWS's national -- and then international -- movement had been heading into dangerous territory. Oakland and New York and other protest sites around the country were becoming pockets of violence. We can parcel blame for this violence between law enforcement and protesters, but most Americans aren't interested in parceling. They're interesting in macro impressions. And the macro impression was that Occupy Wall Street was awakening anarchist tendencies that won't find an audience in the quiet frustrations of the American living room.

When it launched, there was a real sense that this protest was different from other protests. Of course, some signs made complicated issues too simple and others made villains out of easy targets. But there was also a current of pain and authentic searching for answers to common American problems. In particular, the We Are the 99 Percent blog struck me as a remarkable anthology of the middle class crisis. Here were single mothers and poor graduates telling their stories and naming their challenges. High student debt. Low job prospects. Expensive health care. Cheap available work.

Whether or not the protesters return to their tents, New York police have given them a chance to lift up, take stock, and pitch their energies in an issue worth occupying. Writing for The Atlantic yesterday, Sara Horowitz reached back into the Industrial Revolution protests that culminated in the Eight-Hour Day Movement. From a "massive, inchoate, messy movement emerged a central demand: an eight-hour workday," she wrote. And that eventually led to Fair Labor Standards Act as part of the New Deal in 1938.

What should be the Eight-Hour Day Movement of the moment? Maybe they should focus on student debt reform. Today, student debt lives with you until you die and cannot be unwound in bankruptcy court; perhaps it should be. Maybe they should focus on the minimum wage, which has declined in real value for the last few decades. Maybe they call for repealing the Bush tax cuts, a savvy request that would represent broad sacrifice (it would raise taxes on almost all households, but mostly at the top) to demonstrate to Americans that the movement is willing to sacrifice for its ultimate goals. There is also welfare reform, unemployment benefit support, and other platforms that would aim to support the least well-off.

To persuasively argue for these things does not require a permanent home base cobbled together from camping tents in a private park. If Occupy Wall Street is ultimately about where protesters can and cannot physically be, then it's already sacrificed macro strategy for logistical tactics. OWS has its newspeg. It's time to write the larger story. To get moving again, Occupy Wall Street doesn't need to re-pitch its tents. It needs a bigger tent.



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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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