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The Battle for the Soul of Occupy Wall Street

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Beyond the juvenile thrill of public misbehavior and fucking with authorities, one would still be hard-pressed to discern any tactical upside to the wildcat march. If Occupy has any interest in winning over hearts and minds, in fact, the march was actively counter-productive. On a practical level, such incidents also make it easier for the police to justify their own outrageous actions.

In the fall, a coordinated nationwide clampdown resulted in the clearing of every major Occupy camp in a matter of weeks. Over 700 OWS activists were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge; tear gas was used on protesters in Oakland and Seattle. The NYPD, in particular, has taken to treating protesters like suspected terrorists, conducting surveillance on prominent Occupiers. The morning before the general strike, police raided the homes of several New York-area anarchists who'd participated in past Occupy actions, under the flimsiest of pretexts – in one case, an open-container violation that was several years old. There's also been legal harassment: Occupy protesters at the University of California-Davis whose blockade led to the closing of a U.S. Bank branch could, outrageously, be ordered to pay over $1 million in damages to the bank, while New York's district attorney has been granted the power to subpoena the Twitter feeds of activists.

"If our momentum has faltered, it's important to say why: an insane and illegal crackdown on people exercising their First Amendment rights," says Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker who edits the free broadsheet Occupy! Gazette. "So has Occupy 'lost' momentum, which implies Occupy dropped the ball all on its own, or has it hit the big ugly wall of state repression?"

The end result – certainly no accident – was that a widely popular protest movement no longer focused on the venality of Wall Street, a point most of us could agree upon. Instead, Occupy would become, in many respects, a protest about its own right to protest – valid, of course, but also a muddying of the message, and one with a less broadly populist appeal.

One of the most vivid examples of the police crackdown took place on the six-month anniversary of Occupy, which happened to fall on an unseasonably warm Saturday in March. It was also St. Patrick's Day, and Zuccotti Park might have been the only public place in Manhattan in which there was no danger of stepping in a puddle of green vomit or being serenaded with a version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." About 700 people had gathered in the park to celebrate, and by evening, a festive, decidedly mellow air had fallen over the place. It was a clear night, and staring up at the imposing skyscrapers surrounding the park, it was easy to understand why making a stand right here, deep inside enemy territory, must have felt so heroic, like a ragtag guerrilla army billeted at the gates of Mordor.

The fact that a phalanx of police officers were assembled just outside the park lent the party an extra frisson. It was telling that, on a holiday dedicated to public drunkenness, the NYPD saw fit to dedicate a significant number of its officers to surrounding a bunch of sober, law-abiding citizens hanging out in a public space.

Shane Patrick, a 32-year-old member of the OWS press team, made his way through the crowd. Patrick grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, first-generation Irish-American. After working for years in the music industry, Patrick went back to school in 2008; two months later, the economy collapsed, leaving him saddled with a student loan, and though he's now a prime organizer at Occupy, he's still looking for a day job. There are times when he'll be in the middle of submitting résumés for entry-level receptionist positions and then will have to stop to do a phone interview with the BBC.

Tonight, Patrick ran into a group of friends and they began debating whether or not they should stay all night. A sleepy-looking girl with a nose ring said, hopefully, "If being the most radical means being the most tactical, maybe our best tactic will be to get to bed early tonight so we can be more alert tomorrow?"

"That's actually a quote from page 11 of Che Guevera's Guerrilla Warfare," Patrick noted dryly.

The cops moved in at midnight. It was an intimidating show of force, a solid wall of about a hundred officers. Over a megaphone, one of them ordered, "Leave the park now or you will be arrested." The vast majority of the Occupiers complied, aside from a core surrounding a tarp who'd decided to force a standoff. I was still in the park when I saw an officer leading away a young female protester in handcuffs. Suddenly, she reared back and elbowed the cop in the face. She managed to run forward a few feet before the officer tackled her to the ground. The hand of another officer roughly shoved me out of the way as a half dozen cops rushed to the scene and piled on.

As people spilled out of the park, the police funneled everyone down a narrow sidewalk. Someone tripped, and the cops surged forward. I saw one officer violently shove a bearded protester in the chest, like a playground bully. In all, 73 people were arrested, many taken away in commandeered city buses. The following Monday, Bloomberg told reporters, "You want to get arrested? We'll accommodate you."

Around the country, local Occupy groups have wrestled with similar problems. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel cracked down mercilessly on an attempted early encampment, which has had the effect of forcing Occupy Chicago to focus more on neighborhood-level direct actions – fighting school closings in poor neighborhoods and tuition hikes at DePaul University. Portland, meanwhile, held down the largest Occupy camp in the country before it was cleared in November, an estimated 500 campers. As one member of Occupy Portland told me, "We just had such a huge base of people ready to be outside – drifter kids, homeless people."

At the end of February, Occupy Portland called for a nationwide day of direct actions targeting the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. It was a worthy, and sophisticated, goal: Prior to the work of groups like Occupy Portland, ALEC had comfortably operated behind the scenes, lobbying for pro-business, but also explicitly right-wing, legislation on behalf of a corporate membership that included Walmart, ExxonMobil and Bank of America, backing everything from Arizona's xenophobic anti-immigration statutes to legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act.

Portland embodied, to me, another of the major hurdles facing Occupy. Like an indie-rock band suddenly catapulted to international superstardom, Occupy was now part of the mainstream, but not necessarily of it. Despite the fact that their movement had become a worldwide sensation, and received visiting dignitaries like Kanye West and Alec Baldwin, many of the core organizers were committed anarchists.

A meeting to plan the Portland march took place at a communal activist house on the outskirts of town. bored? read a sign on the wall with some envelopes pinned beside it. WRITE TO A POLITICAL PRISONER. One of the housemates was a petite, extroverted redhead in her twenties named Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky. Except for the anarchy symbol pinned to her fleece, she might have stepped out of an REI catalogue. When I arrived, Zimmer-Stucky was showing around her mother, Jacqueline, who was visiting from the Bay Area and planned to participate in the march. "This is your protest pack for tomorrow, Mom," she said, unzipping a backpack. "OK, we've got vegan gluten-free bars, a whistle, pen and paper, gauze, a 50-50 mix of Maalox and water – you pour this into your eyes if you get pepper-sprayed. Alcohol swabs for tear gas. You want to get another strong scent in your nose. In Palestine, we used onions."

As always, I was impressed by the intelligence and dedication of most of the Occupy activists I met, from the skinny young anarchist spinning out various "Malthusian doom scenarios" of environmental catastrophe to David Osborn, a professor at Portland State University, who tells me, "A whole generation has now been primed for social action. Will it happen this spring? I hope so. But it could be a year from now." To be sure, there are also darker, more conspiracy-minded characters. One night at a bar, another Occupy Portland planner – a woman in her late twenties – starts telling me how 9/11 was an inside job, that there were no bankers or members of the one percent in the towers when they collapsed. When I tell her that's crazy and point out that I've heard similar things from fanatical Muslims, only instead of "one-percenters" they say "Jews," the girl says, "That's probably true too – I wouldn't be surprised. And I'm Jewish."

The march takes place on a cold, rainy day, but still ends up drawing an impressive turnout, nearly 700 people. It's incredibly well-organized, with multiple stops in front of ALEC-affiliated storefronts and office buildings in downtown Portland, many involving elaborate street theater. Aside from some puerile baiting of the police – when mounted officers ride alongside the crowd, a chant of "Get those animals off those horses!" erupts – the tension between the protesters and the motorcycle cops blocking the march from turning down various streets is minimal.

The next day, though, the protest barely received any coverage outside of Portland, and I wondered if the whole exercise had been just another affirmational liberal circle jerk. But by April, pressure on ALEC had continued to build, exacerbated by the revelation that the group promoted the "Stand Your Ground" laws that had come under fire in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. After major corporate members such as Coca-Cola withdrew their support – costing the group hundreds of thousands of dollars – ALEC caved, announcing it would disband its committee for social legislation. The next week, one liberal group announced it was pressing the advantage and challenging ALEC's tax-exempt IRS status, while The Washington Post noted that "like the Koch Brothers... [ALEC] has gone from a little-known acronym to a political fireball."

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