Democratic though the movement has been thus far, we’re still living in a celebrity culture, and each additional dose of star power was generally seen as a net plus (especially in terms of generating media buzz). The week’s speakers, in addition to Mr. Žižek, included Van Jones, Nobel Prize winning-economist Joseph Stiglitz, and New York Times economist Jeff Madrick. There were free musical sets from activist punk band Anti-Flag, Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel (whose wife, Astra Taylor, directed the documentary Žižek! about the superstar philosopher) and Talib Kweli. Meanwhile, some of the protesters have become stars in their own right, like Daily Kos blogger Jesse LaGreca, who went from appearing in an unaired Fox News interview to debating Christiane Amanpour, George Will and Peggy Noonan on ABC’s This Week round table Sunday.
At this point in the game, it is impossible to ignore the protesters and hope they go away. Mayor Bloomberg announced Monday that they were free to stay in the park “indefinitely,” a seeming olive branch that was negated somewhat when he was asked how long the Occupation in Zuccotti would last. “I think part of it has probably to do with the weather,” the mayor responded. Freezing them out, rather than forcibly removing them, seemed like the most viable option.
Even President Obama acknowledged the protests, noting that they “[express] the frustrations the American people feel.” That stopped well short of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s near-endorsement a few days before (“I can’t blame them”) but it was remarkable nonetheless for a nascent movement.
The Occupy movement is now having its own westward expansion: spreading last week (according to OccupyTogether.org, an off-shoot of OccupyWallSt.org) to some 1,213 cities around the world, with major hubs in Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Columbus, Oakland, Toledo, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Phoenix and San Diego.
Todd Gitlin, Columbia professor, former Students for a Democratic Society cofounder, and author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, wrote a piece for The New York Times this weekend comparing the dynamics of OWS and the General Assembly to (among other things) the New Left group that defined the student political agenda in the hippie era.
“‘Let the people decide,’” he wrote, “meant, in practice, ‘Let’s have long meetings where everyone gets to talk.’ De facto, this meant that politics was for people who, in a sense, talked for a living—in other words, college types.”
Occupy Wall Street’s de facto decision-making body, the General Assembly, has thus far organized itself along similar lines. And in contrast to the Occupy movement as a whole, which is all about spreading the word, the New York General Assembly in Zuccotti Park has been more focused on keeping its little village going, which, as the days turn colder, will be harder to do.
“It’s up to the key players,” Mr. Gitlin told us by phone on Sunday. “They can be seen in terms of forces: the first force are those actually in the park, and these other cities, that are attracting and galvanizing people to get involved. The second force are the people you saw Wednesday—the unions, the professional groups—and I don’t know what they have in mind. I don’t know if they know what they have in mind.”
(The irony, of course, is that this sounds suspiciously like what the media were saying about the original protesters … until the unions came and legitimized the cause.)
“I’m not even sure if the groups needs a collective message,” Mr. Gitlin continued, “since it’s not as important what the people in the park do as what the entire movement does. The original movement might have started with the Park People (i.e., those occupying the park and holding General Assembly meetings), but the majority that you saw marching Wednesday were not the Park People. So the Park People have some leverage, but they aren’t the most important facet of what’s going on right now.”
Those words may sting for those who started the fire and maintained it in Zuccotti Park for the past three weeks. They were the ones getting arrested and making themselves vulnerable to the police’s pepper spray and the media’s ridicule. But as the movement becomes mainstream, it will increasingly be dominated by faces that contain fewer piercings and are better shaven.
As winter approaches, one can’t help wondering, with Mayor Bloomberg, how long the protesters will last. Kyle Christopher, a hyperactive 27-year-old who has been part of General Assembly’s P.R. team and one of the main videographers for the Occupy Wall Street protests, has already decamped for D.C., where he will be filming the occupation there. When we asked one crust-punk girl wearing a bandanna over her face how long she planned to participate, she replied, “Forever. Or until it gets cold out.”
Then again, a sign held by another demonstrator suggested the group might be determined enough to last through the winter. “Lost my job,” it read. “Found an occupation.”