Politics & Policy

OWS in Crisis

Occupying is so last year.

Occupy Wall Street is wandering in the desert. This much was made clear on New Year’s Day. Sitting at the airport in London waiting for my flight back to America, I watched a stream of hysterical tweets from OWS’s Twitter account. They described the attempted “reoccupation” of New York City in terms usually reserved for genuine crises. It was 4 a.m. on the East Coast, and the occupiers were in the midst of an attempt to grab the first headlines of 2012 — ostensibly by encouraging their members to get themselves arrested, which is apparently the new metric of revolutionary success.

When I landed at JFK, I expected to find all sorts of stories filling the Web and to head straight down to Zuccotti Park to see what had happened. After all, the disproportionate media coverage that OWS received — which was more in line with the protesters’ deluded sense of self-importance than commensurate with the public’s interest or the coherence of their aims — was its greatest achievement of 2011. But there was nothing, and nor was there much sign of OWS in New York. In the seven hours I had been out of touch with those on the ground, America’s media had gone wild with apathy and OWS had gone home. Evidently, occupying is so last year.

Having been cleared out of most of its major encampments — New York, Oakland, Portland, Los Angeles — the occupation is now homeless. This presents it with something of a problem. The sine qua nonof an occupation is that its practitioners have to stay put (the clue is rather in the title), but the occupiers have now been rendered nomads. They have not quite reverted to diffusion — prior to congregating on September 17 last year, its members were living variously and waiting for the next G8 — but are now a wandering rump, in search of a new tactic. They seem to have settled upon flashmob-esque descents on major public spaces, which are keenly filmed in the craven hope that something bad happens. In New York so far this year, their sets have been Grand Central Terminal and Broadway. (The latter being a suitable home for many involved, perhaps.) They may be coming soon to a sidewalk near you.

Once they’ve assembled, we have heard the same old misunderstanding of the First Amendment that characterized last year’s hijinks: that it legitimizes all behavior, providing that such behavior is in support of political protest. “OWS blocked Broadway! Being moved away by police. WTF!?” read one New Year’s Day tweet. WTF? It seems rather self-explanatory to me.

Given their history of dogmatic insistence that one has a right to squat on private property and ignore city ordinances simply because one doesn’t like them, it should come as no surprise that the Occupy brigade enjoys such a limited understanding of the Constitution. But this is more about the optics. Expect the-authorities-are-trampling-on-our-rights! to be a theme employed widely in 2012. It is no accident that the next major protest planned is on January 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day; OWS is fully aware that “civil rights” holds a sacred place in the American heart and to appropriate its imagery can be a highly effective, if distastefully misused, political tool.

Occupy is not merely physically homeless, but politically and existentially so as well. Their tactic of protesting banks and corporations is in large part the product of an unwillingness directly to criticize an administration that is by and large their own, but this has the added effect of keeping them out of the larger political structure. So, unfortunately for them, will electoral gravity. As the election nears and President Obama is forced back into synthetic centrism, OWS is unlikely to find itself the beneficiary of many more overtures from the DNC, and, with a general election looming, a repetition of the early lukewarm support from the likes of John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi seems implausible.

Nor is Occupy likely to find a home among a majority of voters. Americans responding to Occupy Wall Street last year seemed barely capable of containing their indifference. As any petulant child knows, there is one thing worse than to be admonished, and that is to be ignored. Polls have shown that two-thirds of Americans have never even heard of OWS, let alone considered supporting it. So much for the “99 percent.”

During their pathetic attempt to retake New York’s Zuccotti Park on New Year’s Eve, OWS marched under a predictable banner. It promised a “New Year’s Revolution.” In reality, it is more of a devolution. At its height, Occupy was a few thousand leftists in a park. Now it is a few hundred leftists without a park and with a couple of faculties that really should be put to a more productive purpose. The occupiers can walk around in the desert for as long as they like, but they will never escape the mirage.

– Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.

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