The Occupy movement has now gone on for more than two months — a remarkable feat that’s been helped in part by mercifully un-horrible weather, and that’s survived ugly police interventions in several places. But the movement needs an endgame.
And that endgame could be facilitated by a simple political fact: most of the high profile protests are taking place in cities with Democratic mayors. With the exception of New York, those mayors are, policy-wise, sympathetic to the protesters’ underlying issues. And despite some really bad policing in some instances: in Oakland, where Mayor Jean Quan has been the picture of incompetence and unnecessary brutality; in Seattle, where we were treated to an old lady macing by police; and on the UC Davis campus, where somebody thought it was a good idea to let former LAPD chief Bill Bratton lead the probe into the pepper spraying of students who were peacefully protesting — while seated — when they were watered like a garden by a creepily casual cop… despite all that, the Occupy movement has a chance to make an impact in these very places.
In L.A., the Democratic mayor expressed sympathy with the protesters, even as he set a deadline of Monday, for them to leave City Hall:
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa lauded the Occupy movement for “awakening the country’s conscience,” but he said that after 56 days, the encampments that flank the two grassy areas adjacent to City Hall must be removed by 12:01 a.m. Monday for public health and safety reasons.
At an afternoon news conference with police Chief Charlie Beck, Villaraigosa said the movement that has spread in two months from New York to numerous other U.S. cities has “awakened the country’s conscience” — but also trampled grass at City Hall that must be restored.
“The movement is at a crossroads,” the mayor said. “It is time for Occupy LA to move from holding a particular patch of park land to spreading the message of economic justice and signing more people up for the push to restore the balance to American society.”
He’s right. The movement has galvanized public opinion and media attention around the issues of income inequality and economic fairness (not to mention police brutality) – But at some point, the OWS movement has to be about more than just occupying patches of land, right? At some point, don’t the movement’s leaders — okay, okay, there are no leaders — but its representatives — don’t they need to step forward and ask for something? One of our editors at TheGrio has a saying at the base of his emails that says “you have not, because you ask not.” No truer words, occupiers.
Consider the big cities where Occupy movements have garnered national attention: Chicago, New York (where the mayor isn’t exactly sympathetic, but he isn’t about to bulldoze that Zucotti Park encampment, either. He isn’t crazy… and where Fox News acts as a kind of cartoon villain clown car tailing the movement…) Atlanta – the cradle of the civil rights movement — Philadelphia, where Mayor Michael Nutter has also put protesters on notice; the aforementioned Oakland and L.A. … I’m willing to bet you the mayors of these cities; all Democrats with the exception of Bloomberg, would be willing to sit down with OWS representatives to talk about how they can make those cities more hospitable to people who are struggling, if at the end of the negotiations, they can see an end date to the physical protests.
I’ll bet OWS could get an audience with these mayors, because at the end of the day, even Democratic or progressive mayors have to run their cities. They have to balance the First Amendment rights of protesters against the quality of life for residents at large, and they have to e responsive to all constituents, including the business communities in neighborhoods where OWS protests may be cutting off commerce, and making it harder for businesses to stay open. They have to run an orderly municipality, or they won’t be mayor for long. So the mayors have a vested interest in negotiating with the OWS protesters. And not for nothing, but it’s not like people can’t go back into the streets if the heads of government don’t hold up their end of the bargain. See: Egypt.
The question is, do the protesters know what they would ask for in a negotiation, and are they prepared to use their leverage to actually get something besides what will inevitably become increasingly negative press?
Can this movement go from protest to politics, and actually win some concrete gains for the people they care about — the 99 percenters, out of work Americans, struggling students, union members under fire over their pensions and benefits, and Americans who are sick of being trampled by governments bought and paid for by the rich? Can they actually accept that what they have is political leverage? And will they use it before it dwindles away, and the protests stretch into months, and the media becomes bored or irritated and moves on? The Occupiers were certainly greeted as liberators in the beginning, but over time, people are going to inevitably turn away…
The ball is decidedly in the protesters court.