When encampments are shut down, it’s not just the physical turf that’s lost; a social experiment in working out the issues that have divided people for centuries gets crimped.
By Latoya Peterson
November 25, 2011
Since Occupy Wall Street lost its stronghold in Manhattan’s financial district last week, thanks to a long-threatened raid by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, discussion swirls about the fate of the movement — especially in light of similar evictions of Occupy encampments in other cities.
But the loss of encampment space is about more than the movement’s physical presence; it threatens the loss of the most compelling story, a hybrid of breaking news and reality TV show. This couldn’t have been dreamed up by MTV, but the premise feels familiar: An organic, ad hoc society springs from encampment village, hashing out in real time tensions around class, race and competing priorities that have gripped the progressive movement for decades — essentially the early seasons of “The Real World” for change agents and social activists. (The comparison wasn’t lost on MTV producers, who created a special called True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street, which aired earlier this month.)
Occasionally, the competing priorities of the movements made headlines, but the stories aired and published usually focused on tensions that arise when resistance to the state meets the need for police authority, as evidenced in ongoing battles over dealing with sexual assault in some encampments. Matters of diversity, homelessness and conversational direction draw less attention from media, but are fiercely debated in the Occupy communities — and those conversations are instructive in the quest to create a new type of society.
Busting a Stereotype
Back in October, responding to Bloomberg’s first threat of eviction to the OWS camp, I found myself prepping to head down to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park at dawn. (Bloomberg said that the park needed to be cleaned.) The night before, I had gotten lost and ended up on Wall Street, gawking at the police brigades, barriers and officers on horses. I wasn’t planning on getting caught in any kind of sweep (and I wasn’t, though there is a disturbing pattern of journalists being arrested covering OWS protests), but as a life-long resident of Washington, DC, I know protests can go from peaceful to nuclear in seconds.
So, I took to Twitter, asking folks who had been down to Zuccotti to help me decide between a business-casual hybrid outfit (sneakers, professional dress) or the I-may-end-up-incarcerated gear of sneakers, jeans and multiple layers.