Several months after Occupy Wall Street protesters were kicked out of Zucotti Park, I was curious as to how the movement had evolved since I reported on it for The Indypendent, last fall. So in mid-February, I packed my notepad and digital recorder and headed to Occupy Town Square (OTS)on the Upper West Side to interview activists. As media attention for the movement has dwindled, I wondered whether the activists’ commitment and energy remained strong.
Nearly 100 people showed up to the OTS gathering where debates and discussions took place on a cold mid-winter day. Activists in the movement have continued to meet and support OWS, using social media to organize and spread their message to a vast audience. As I entered the West Park Presbytarian Church on West 86th Street where the activists met, I was greeted with a modest banquet and some pamphlets. I took note of the well-stocked People’s Library, a loosely organized lending “library” designed to facilitate book-swapping. The atmosphere was relaxed and music blared. A group of activists conversed, while others listened to a speaker. A few homeless people wandered into the church to check out the food table. I spotted a woman who looked as if she knew what was going on.
Her name is Kelly McGowan, 49, a professional facilitator, who works with social justice organizations on strategy and movement building. Originally from Buffalo, she’s lived in New York City for the past 25 years.
“I witnessed the planning meetings in Tompkins Square Park and then I started coming to [Zucotti] Park in September,” McGowan said. On this day, she came to OTS to teach a facilitation workshop.
“I hope to change things in the world. The participatory leadership that they’re talking about here is a practice that I’ve been studying for many years, so I feel that I have a role here to help us get smarter about that,” McGowan said. “I want to learn and teach which ties into the movement’s goal of participatory democracy for the peoples’ voice vs. corporate control.”
McGowan believes that OWS will be the rest of her life’s work. When she was in college, she was active in the anti-Apartheid movement and has worked on social justice issues ever since.
She made a bold prediction: “I think it will take at least seven years for us to figure out how to talk to each other and how to have deep conversations across class and race. It will be at least 20 years until there are radical changes.” McGowan went on to say, “a gentleman here said that it took 13 years to end the Vietnam War. I think that it’s got to take at least twice that to change our government.”
Amir Aziz, 47, a New Jersey resident, said he’s committed a lot of his time to OWS since last fall. When asked what he hopes to change, Aziz, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, told me: “I hope to change everything! I hope to create a new order that gives people equal opportunities, that doesn’t discriminate because of race or gender or religion, that allows Americans to understand what is going on in the whole universe and [that] makes this powerful and rich country able to lead the world in a different direction [than] it does right now.”
Darra Martin, 31, a graduate student in New York City and originally from Dublin, Ireland, said she wasn’t discouraged by the movement’s perceived lack of momentum over the past few months. Serving as a librarian for thePeople’s Library, Martin told me he’s been a part of the movement since last fall and remains upbeat. He expects the protests to continue indefinitely.
“I wouldn’t put an end date [to how long the movement will last]. There are lots of projects we’re working on. We’re setting up an Occupy University and my hope is that it will go on for a long time.”
The Media’s Focus
The media’s focus on OWS arrests doesn’t do the movement justice, according to Martin: “I think many of the media stories have been kind of frustrating, because they’re just about arrests. It’s not as interesting to cover the movement’s long-term projects.”
Although OWS hasn’t received the kind of media attention that it did originally, it’s far from dead, according to McGowan. “[OWS] was a spectacle and the press could recognize it. There were photographs and stories to tell. Now what’s happened is that without that spectacle, there are other activities like OTS. I believe that there will be spectacles again around the [Presidential] election and the party conventions, so it will get that kind of press again.”
Aziz explained the tactics behind OWS. “The tactics were always related to the movement’s strategy which was to have a spectacle,” he said. As OWS evolves, tactics are likely to move beyond the idea of spectacles, toward organizing meetings that strive to create a political platform. The goal, these three OWS activists maintain, is to get in front of policymakers to influence the quality of the debate in a presidential election year.
Aziz said he wants to follow the trajectory of the movement. “If the movement can find the right answers about the future and the way to create a social movement, we will have dramatic change in the United States.” However, he’s concerned about the movement’s direction: “I think that OWS is losing its direction. I think the movement hasn’t found its way and hasn’t come up with specific demands, so there is no concrete stop here. It still revolves around the idea of creating energy, not creating movement and they are two different things,” he explained, adding, “The energy is very important, but we need to channel it into a more concrete direction. The movement will last as long as it finds its real direction.”
While it’s true that OWS has fewer people protesting and the media attention for the movement has dwindled, there are still many people like McGowan, Aziz and Martin who are still engaged with the Occupy movement, as well as millions of others who support its broad demands for social justice.
“As I saw and have heard from other activists, the number of [active] protesters are less but at the same time, the idea is getting broader, so we need to find out how to match the organizing body with the energy,” Aziz said.
It seems clear that the OWS movement is still growing and evolving despite being ousted from its former home at Zuccotti Park. There’s a sense that the OWS protesters are regrouping and the movement will likely rekindle with an energized force as the presidential race nears.
Larissa Heron is a high school sophomore at New York’s School of the Future. She writes for The Indypendent, Huffington Post and other publications as a member of http://www.girlswritenow.org/gwn, a mentorship program for young female writers.