The Occupiers: A Liberal and a Radical Struggle for the Soul of a Movement


Fewer than 200 supporters were on the West Lawn of the Capitol at 9 a.m. to kick off Occupy Congress. Per Zucker's negotiations with the Capitol Police, protesters had a demonstration permit until 11 p.m. A light rain had dampened the grass to mud, but the masses arrived once it subsided. Inclement weather is like kryptonite to Occupy Wall Street, as strong attendance is typically contingent on clear skies and warm air.

Within minutes, there was a dispute with cops: The permit didn't include use of the pavement in front of the Capitol and a large swath of officers were attempting to clear it. But the Capitol Police aren't like the punch-happy authorities in Manhattan or tear-gas frequenters in Oakland. They're trained to handle agitators whether they're rushing up the Capitol steps or hopping over the White House fence. About 2,000 protesters of the anticipated 5,000 actually showed up -- a real drop in the bucket for Washington standards. Supporters lined the sides, with some standing on the cement barriers to clamor for a better view and shout "Fuck the police!" They watched as daredevils played "red rover" by dashing across to the other side and escaping the officers' grasp. Murphy darted once and wanted to do it again. He was giddy, like a kid who had just gotten away with disobeying his parents.

"You think I can make it?" he asked. No chance.

Fearing arrest, he stood down. "I get really, really fucking jittery when it comes to doing illegal stuff," he'd said the night before. "Like, I can do it, but all I think about is going back to jail, and I really do not like being in jail."

Zucker was nearby. He was pleased with the turnout despite a failed attempt to garner "official" support from the General Assembly in New York. Murphy was Zucker's point man in Manhattan, and during a visit three weeks earlier, they'd presented a joint proposal for Occupy Wall Street to express solidarity for Occupy Congress. As the first and initially largest encampment, New York is where smaller occupations turn for money, supplies, and guidance.

After spending four hours outside on what felt like the coldest day of the year, and after being forced to move by police and rain, the group had been whittled down to one facilitator, a minutes-taker, a few livestreamers, and a dozen supporters. They decided to stop making decisions for the night and tabled the proposal. In a nearby pizza shop afterward, Zucker said he wasn't surprised that only 75 people had shown up, given that it was winter, but Murphy thought it was meetings like those that were making the cause "a big fucking joke." 

Poor attendance had become too routine and self-destructive. "I don't see Occupy Wall Street as being sustainable," he said. A continued refusal to articulate clear demands or name official leaders had taken a visible toll on the appeal of the movement. Not that he wanted those things, just the energy that could materialize with them. "Unless some things are altered, it's going to fizzle. People are going to get burned out."

Two days later, Zucker was gone and it was Murphy's job to see the proposal through. But as he spoke, a man to his right, Tim, crossed his arms above his head, which signaled a "block," and passionately argued against the motion. A block is used when a protester is so ethically opposed to a proposal that he or she would consider leaving the movement if it is passed.

"We don't have a structure, nationally, that we can actually use direct democracy to make events like this happen yet," Tim told the crowd. "And that doesn't mean you cut corners, it doesn't mean you do it anyway. It means you don't do it until we build these structures." Others raised their hands and wiggled their fingers upward, an indication of agreement. Murphy thanked him and weighed in: "It's difficult for me to respond because I identify with what he's saying." That got a few laughs. He wasn't in a position to change the proposal, so the block stood and it was voted down. Murphy smirked.

Tim wasn't wrong. Winter had cut attendance of the meetings to the point where a few dozen protesters were representing the interests of thousands. The structure for building a nationwide event like Occupy Congress needed complete organization and it wasn't there yet.

New York was well represented at the demonstration, but the lack of solidarity was apparent. After four non-symbolic arrests and a loose 1,000-person General Assembly, the crowd dispersed to attend various teach-ins, have lunch at the makeshift "kitchen," or simply take a break from the schedule. 

Two hours later, most of the supporters had walked over to Rayburn House Office Building for a quick show of force. Officers halted traffic as hundreds of protesters shuffled across the street, bombarding the main entrance. At one point, dozens of them bolted up the two sets of steps to the balcony, moving faster than the cameras could capture them. Authorities were too far back to suppress them as they cheered, posed for the media, and basked in an unexpected victory. A minute later, they rushed down. Some entered the building while others began a march. Zucker and a small group from Occupy DC went into Longworth House Office Building, instead, to meet with their representatives.

At the first stop, the office of Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, two staffers met the protesters and told them the congressman was unavailable, but gladly listened to their concerns. Zucker brought up campaign contributions while another sat down to pen Hoyer a note. The group then went next door to Representative Chris Van Hollen's office, where they asked a college-aged man at the front desk to extend a "Thanks!" to the congressman for his "No" vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which had passed anyway. The protesters then decided to find the Rayburn office of Representative Darrell Issa, a main instigator of the investigation into why Occupy DC was allowed to live on federal property for so long. (The National Park Service would finally evict the encampment on February 4.)

Each time they asked to speak with a representative, staffers told the group they were not aware of their boss' current locations. The protesters didn't seem to realize they were being avoided. On the way out, they found Representative Louie Gohmert's office, where an earlier group had been told he would not come out to acknowledge them. This delegation had something else in mind. They crowded into the tiny office with one purpose: a loud disruption that Gohmert would overhear. Seconds after shuffling in, a young, short woman with dyed orange hair and a purple bandanna around her neck screamed "mic check!" and demanded an explanation for his "Yes" vote on NDAA. One staffer politely asked the group to leave as another called for security. The protesters chanted "We. Are. The 99 Percent!" as they left and relished in their simple win.

By 6 p.m., hundreds of supporters had gathered at the bottom of the Capitol for the march around Washington. The West Lawn resembled a torn-up football field with all the players standing off on the sidelines. Protesters traipsed over to the Supreme Court, where they got their joie de vivre moment after filling its steps, then "took the streets" to the White House. They shouted, drummed, and danced up Pennsylvania Avenue as police kept their distance. 

Customers in sandwich shops along the way crowded the windows to get a better view. Some clapped and flashed peace signs and others stood with no reaction. After reaching their destination, they hoisted an "Occupy Wall St" banner and chanted "Obama, come out! There's things we want to talk about!" Some even tied heart-shaped notes to the wrought-iron fence for the president, who was at a nearby restaurant celebrating the First Lady's birthday.

Three days later, Murphy moved up to "Occupy Farms" in East Calais, Vermont, outside Montpelier, in search of a new scene and new people. He said "nothing material happened" at Occupy Congress but that it had proven that the group could organize regional, if not national, events quite well. He still thinks the movement won't be sustainable if it remains explicitly nonviolent, but he enjoys participating, believing he can help ensure that Occupy Wall Street keeps doing what it is doing. "Arguably nothing," he chided.

Walking down the sidewalk these days, it's not uncommon to hear people ask each other what happened to Occupy Wall Street, in the same way they might ask, "What ever happened to so-and-so from way back? She had so much potential." The answer is almost always that the person never reached the level others had believed she would -- that she'd failed and was now a waitress at the diner in the town she'd never left. That's not exactly what happened to Occupy Wall Street, but it's close. The movement didn't fail, but rather fell short, stalled, and is now battling internal obstacles as preparations for a second phase get underway.

Just as millions of Americans banked on Obama's "Change You Can Believe In" rhetoric four years ago and thought he could erase eight years of damage overnight, some people thought Occupy Wall Street could create instant change. And now, six months after the movement began, it's clear that a lack of organization caused it to plateau. Protesters chose to gather before figuring out what they wanted and decided to organize themselves around parks rather than issues. They aimed their anger at unrealistic targets instead of tackling specific issues, amassing simple wins, and building a following based on a track record of success.

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University and author of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, said things might have played out that way for any number of reasons: a refusal to acknowledge leaders, a failure to demand complete nonviolence, and even an inability to control the media's portrayal of the movement's intentions. "They now have a very serious problem of maintaining momentum and developing some kind of structure, which is conducive to next steps, and they're not there," he said. "And they might not be able to get there." But Gitlin, a former leader of the 1960s activist group Students for a Democratic Society, acknowledged that Occupy Wall Street is still nascent, and that movements go through this as they seek to mature, though sometimes die in the process.

The protesters' immediate impact is undeniable: Large public unions of blue-collar workers have been emboldened, hundreds of thousands of Americans have moved their savings from big banks to smaller ones and local credit unions, and there is now more discussion about resolving wealth inequality. But the movement's actions over the next month and a half are viewed as key for its survival ahead of the General Strike on May 1 and G-8 and NATO summits later that month.

On March 17, in commemorating their six-month anniversary, hundreds of protesters staged a day of action in Zuccotti Park that culminated with an attempt to reoccupy the space and a swift eviction in an evening police raid. More than 70 protesters were arrested, including Murphy -- his second time in three days -- but while the mayhem kicked up mainstream news coverage and an energy they hadn't seen since November, it's unclear whether it will initiate the "radical spring" they're convinced will occur.

A movement based on warm weather, overtaking privately owned public spaces, and battling police isn't sustainable; some have realized this. One method that supporters are trying out is more localized organizing. "You need people who are pushing for the long-term and you need people who are at the same time working to achieve short-term goals," said Molly Katchpole, an activist with Rebuild the Dream in Washington. 

Katchpole, 23, is proof that targeting smaller issues works. Last fall, her petitions against Bank of America and Verizon fees both gained hundreds of thousands of signatures, and ultimately led the companies to retract the dues. Katchpole said Occupy Wall Street initiated the conversation that gave her petitions the push they needed, but with that support gone, a community-based approach might be more effective.

Zucker is planning smaller efforts around Washington, too, and acknowledged that regaining the momentum Occupy Wall Street had in October will be crucial to its future. "It'll be hard to bring that sort of spontaneous, grassroots energy back to the movement," he said. "It's going to take energy and organizing and intention."

Murphy has a different plan. In April, he's heading out to Oakland; protesters there know how to have a good time and aren't afraid of a little confrontation. But despite his frustrations, he thinks Occupy Wall Street is perfect right now -- not too organized, not too destructive. "It's above ground, it's legal, it's nonviolent. It's the ideal front organization for a revolutionary movement," he said. "You can filter in money to this place, you can get volunteers, you can start vetting people to make sure they're not cops, all in a very above-ground manner."

He won't go into details, but he's brainstorming. Something along the lines of a group, conceivably within Occupy Wall Street, organizing itself for actual regime change and using the demonstrations as a disguise. But should the movement sputter out, Murphy said he'd reluctantly find a college in New York and finish the last few credits of his political science degree, then get a job. He would again become part of the system that he intends to destroy. He would have no choice.

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Andrew Katz is a New York-based journalist who has written for The Guardian, Men's Health, and The Brooklyn Ink.

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