The Occupy Wall Street movement has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its organizers. When the protest began six weeks ago, few in the crowd at Zuccotti Park—and, no doubt, even fewer on Wall Street—could have imagined that an old-fashioned sit-in in a downtown Manhattan park would inspire a global protest.
But that is precisely what has happened. Most reasonably informed people in the U.S. and elsewhere know about the O.W.S. movement and its many iterations in other cities. While the demonstrations have lacked a certain degree of message clarity, and while the movement’s leaders are more than a little imprecise about their proposed solutions, there’s no question that O.W.S. has tapped into deep discontent and anger over the status quo.
Now it’s time for the demonstrators to end their protests on their own terms, and with more than a little dignity and pride. Reports of crimes committed against demonstrators have raised concerns about public safety. (Most recently, a Brooklyn man has been accused of sexually abusing an 18-year-old woman in the park.) Continuing the camp out in Zuccotti Park could lead to public health issues, especially with winter approaching. The message of frustration and the demands for action could become overshadowed by the fringe elements that have sought to attach themselves to the movement. (The presence of signs condemning Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza suggests that there are agendas at work here beyond frustration with the U.S. economy.)
There is little left for the O.W.S. movement to prove, at least not in Zuccotti Park. Demonstrators who were arrested over the past few weeks have refused on principle to accept plea bargains and are now demanding their day in court. That shrewd move will give the movement another very public platform to air its message of discontent.
What’s more, a very critical presidential campaign is taking shape out in the fields of Iowa and the villages of New Hampshire, sites of the first-in-the-nation caucus and primary, respectively. President Obama, too, is in full re-election mode, and has been on the road selling his jobs program. If the O.W.S. movement wants action, the action over the next several months will not be in Zuccotti Park. It will be in town meetings and campaign rallies. The O.W.S. movement may disdain conventional politics, but its leaders would be foolish if they ignored an opportunity to shape the nation’s political dialogue with the best available tool, their votes.
The time has come to put away the placards and drums and barricades. The demonstration has altered the nation’s political dialogue in ways few would have thought possible in early October. In that sense, the movement has been a success. Organizers need to figure out how to build on that success while allowing residents and businesses near Zuccotti Park to return to their lives.