Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

The Occupy Movement: the tents are gone, but not the message

Republican presidential hopefuls have adopted the language of the movement
Occupy activists prepare for a January 30 deadline to leave the encampment at Freedom Plaza. While their numbers have thinned since the eviction, their message has started to resonate in mainstream politics.
Occupy activists prepare for a January 30 deadline to leave the encampment at Freedom Plaza. While their numbers have thinned since the eviction, their message has started to resonate in mainstream politics.

WASHINGTON // On a cold February afternoon, Charlie McGarry's hands were buried deep in the pockets of one of the two pairs of trousers he wore.

The 49-year-old was in charge of Occupy DC's information tent on Freedom Square, two blocks from the White House. Apart from helping one curious passer-by, however, he had little to do and was grateful for the chance to have a cup of coffee in the warmth of a nearby coffee house.

The Occupy Movement - primarily aimed at protesting against economic and social inequality that began in New York in September last year and spread across the country and the world in weeks - is losing the visibility that gave it its initial impact. Dislodged from many of the 70 parks and public squares it held in major cities across the US just two months ago, the movement seems in danger of running out of steam.

But its dominant message about inequality survives. Billy Crystal cracked at least two jokes about wealth disparity during Sunday night's Oscar ceremony - where "millionaires give each other golden statues".

And some suggest that a movement that always defied simple definition is just at another stage of evolution.

Elizabeth Rose, the communications director for the Campaign For America's Future, a Washington-based think tank, said the Occupy Movement had succeeded in changing the political discourse in the United States.

Democrats from the US president Barack Obama down had previously struggled to talk of tax reform that did not exclusively seek to lower taxes, Ms Rose said. The Occupy Movement had made it possible for Mr Obama to address economic inequality in his State of the Union Address in January to an extent that Republicans accused him of "class warfare".

Even the Republican presidential hopefuls have adopted the language of the movement. Newt Gingrich, who in November told Occupy protesters to "get a job, right after you get a bath", has since slammed Mitt Romney for being a "vulture capitalist".

Mr Romney has described the message of the Occupy Movement as divisive. Yet last week on the campaign trail in Arizona, the former governor of Massachusetts touted a tax plan that would "make sure the top 1 per cent pay their fair share or more".

"The Occupy Movement has changed the public discourse. There is no doubt about that," said Ms Rose.

She suggested that being dislodged from its encampments might be an advantage.

"The fact that these battles over 'could they sleep here or there' are not in the press right now is a good thing, because the story became about a bunch of hippies wanting to sleep outside."

Now, she said, the movement could focus on its core message of inequality - the idea that a tiny fraction of the population has a disproportionate amount of wealth and influence in the country, summed up in what has become a car bumper sticker, "We Are The 99 Per Cent".

It is an issue the movement has been more successful highlighting than more traditional political organisations such as the Campaign For America's Future, Ms Rose said.

"Occupy is meeting people in a place where we - political organisations - have not really been able."

Activists are as busy as ever. Last week, Occupy DC lent its support to a demonstration outside the Washington jail against proposed prison reforms in which visiting rights would be restricted to video conferencing.

Yesterday, Occupy activists protested against home foreclosures outside the offices of Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored mortgage backer, in downtown DC.

But of the few dozen tents that remain in the two encampments in the capital, many now stand empty. Their populations have dramatically thinned after police began enforcing a no-camping law three weeks ago, prohibiting protesters from sleeping in public spaces.

On Freedom Square, just 18 people remain, Mr McGarry said. It is a sharp contrast to the heady days of October when hundreds turned it into a bustling home for months.

With police evicting anyone caught sleeping there, only four people stay at Freedom Square at night, guarding the encampment, Mr McGarry said. They have to keep each other awake and warm while the rest sleep in a church on the outskirts of the city, a place offered by the church but where there will no longer be space come early March.

It has made it almost impossible for activists to maintain the physical presence that Mr McGarry said was crucial to the movement's ability to connect directly to the public.

"Visibility is important. People need to see we are there. Our physical presence is very important to our message," said Mr McGarry, whose duties in the information tent include talking to the curious about the movement.

It was through such direct means that an amorphous movement with no leadership hierarchy and no money had managed to insert the 99 per cent "into the vocabulary both of political and civic discourse", said Mr McGarry, who has a degree in sociology and religion.

But, as he prepared to go back to the cold, he conceded the movement needed "new blood and new bodies" to stay relevant in the run-up to November's presidential elections.

"I hope we are making a difference. But we need to be part of the narrative between now and November. We need to stay visible until then."