OWS Protesters Know It Makes Sense to End The Occupation, But They Just Don't Want To

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 15 2011 10:09 PM

Married to the Mob

It may make sense for OWS protesters to end the occupations—but they just don't want to.

Occupy DC.
Melinda, an Occupy D.C. protester, sits with her dog outside an encampment in Washington's McPherson Square

Photograph by David Weigel/Slate.

By mid-morning, the campers of Occupy D.C. were some of the last people not caught up on the events in New York City. At about 1 a.m., New York police had begun dismantling the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park. At 8 a.m., images from the protests were on every cable news network. At about 9:30 a.m., when I got to the McPherson Square in downtown Washington, most Occupiers were still in the tents that cover three-quarters of the green space. The news was just beginning to trickle in.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

“Do you know the latest from New York?” asked Alan Ball, who’d come to Washington after leaving his English as a Second Language teaching gig in Tampa. “We’re piecing it together. I’m hearing most of it from reporters.”

In New York there was a pitched battle, reporters being physically dragged away from the story, confirmed then debunked then confirmed reports. In D.C. there’s a camp. There’s some new angst about a possible night raid; there are contingency plans to survive it and come back. There’s a reading library built with packing crates, so it can be moved quickly. There’s a medic tent and plenty of free food. “I think I’ve actually gained weight since I got here,” said a protester with anime-character red hair who will only give her first name, Melinda.

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The protesters have few small problems. What they have is one big problem. Even if the cops don’t crack down, and the city lets them stay—and that’s where things were at on Tuesday—then what’s to gain from continuing the occupation? Why stay in the parks?

That’s the discussion that the Occupy intelligentsia (no, I’m not inventing that phrase) is having right now. On Monday night, right before the New York raid, a new “tactical briefing” went up at AdBusters. The Canadian consumerism-smashing magazine, whose editors had dreamed up the Occupation way back in February, raised two possibilities for the movement’s future.

“STRATEGY #1: We summon our strength, grit our teeth and hang in there through winter,” wrote the magazine’s Culture Jammers. “STRATEGY #2: We declare "victory" and throw a party … a festival … a potlatch … a jubilee … a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we've come, the comrades we've made, the glorious days ahead.” Choose Door No. 2, and most of the movement goes to the “high ground.”

It sounded like a good idea to Will Bunch, a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News who just published the first e-book about the Occupy movement, a history of the Oct. 1 march from Manhattan to Brooklyn, when 700 protesters were arrested.

“I think the large-scale occupation was necessary to keep the focus on inequality,” said Bunch. “But the flaws are starting to outweigh the strengths. Now, it should be direct action against banks, etc., and maybe even nuturing a few of their own to run in 2012 elections.”

I got the same take from Rich Yeselson, a labor organizer who’d been optimistic about the protests when they started. “It should not be a priority to take back the park, or any other public spaces in cities around the country,” Yeselson said. “If the movement can’t exist without occupation, then it wasn't really a movement in the first place. It was merely an episode with some significant rhetorical and political impact.”

Sure, there’s a lot to recommend the declare-victory-and-go-home strategy. If you’re looking at Occupy as a political cause, like the Tea Party, then the last few weeks of stories about ugliness inside the camps and videos of police shutting them down are risky. Just look at the poll from October in which “the 99 percent” played better than “Occupy Wall Street.” A majoritarian message can be muddied and erased if it’s tied to something that the average American recoils at. This hasn’t really changed since Richard Nixon riffed on the “Silent Majority.” It’s what Democrats counted on as they trashed the Tea Party, too.

So there you go: You’ve got polls and experts saying the camps can come down now. Just try and tell that to the Occupiers.