At the Onset of Winter, Questions for a Bullish Movement

It’s been ten weeks since, on September 17, a few hundred pioneers plunked themselves down in Zuccotti Park (more a patch of sunless concrete than a park, actually), renaming it Liberty Square and turning it into a sort of communal homestead and visible sore spot, reminding those who needed reminding that the wildness of markets is essentially rigged for the profit of plutocrats who play, professionally, with much sleight of hand, with other people’s money — and to suggest that there might be a different way, or many different ways, to handle wealth.

Zuccotti Park, or Liberty Square, speedily ballooned into a carnival of political arguments and proclamations, of anarchy and cookery, of lending libraries, drum circles, and long, long, come-one-come-all decision-making meetings in search of consensus. It touched nerves, hearts, and some spleens. On October 7, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor acccused Occupy “mobs” of “pitting Americans against Americans” — a theme not repeated by him or his colleagues, most likely because more politic heads prevailed in the face of polls revealing that supermajorities support curbs on Wall Street.

Journalists and plain curious citizens kept asking what this movement was if it was neither “mobs” nor evident revolution, and it was indeed hard to define it, this blurry phenomenon that calls itself “Occupy Wall Street,” or just plain Occupy or OWS — this sprawl, this cloud of energy lacking headquarters, lacking duly anointed leaders, lacking a “mission statement,” yet strangely present.

The blur accounts for both the movement’s strength and its weakness, its charm and its quicksilver quality, its sense of the provisional and of yet-unrealized potential. But to simplify a bit, we can say that this movement is, first of all, the sum of the encampments of rotating, shifting hundreds, later growing to thousands, who launched and now sustain all the encampments outside New York as well, and now finds itself somewhere between an extended moment and a movement. On special occasions, the encampments can rally tens of thousands of sympathizers — a sort of outer movement, made up mainly of middle-class, working people who view in the encampments, for all their unruliness, their own longings and fears.

This emergent, evolving social movement has already succeeded beyond its wildest dreams, simply by persisting, with reasonable amity, and in passably harmonious relations with its more numerous supporters, who are rallied on special occasions by unions and liberal groups like MoveOn.org — all this in a hostile climate overwhelmed for most of the last decade by the right-wing politics of either George W. Bush or the Tea Party. The encampments are facts on the ground. They change the conversation by sheer persistence (which is why, come the snows, at least token encampments are likely to last the winter). They are carried high by a wave of popular support — starting out, in fact, with more sympathy than any other movement of the left has garnered in many decades, possibly more than a century.

Suddenly, at least for a while, a national discussion of the roots and consequences of, and possible remedies for, staggering inequalities is taking place. At least for now, it has pushed aside the hitherto dominating question of how dangerous government spending is. When scorned by those who (cynically or not) expect a social movement to look tidy and to speak like professors or political party bosses, Occupy picked up strength. Whenever the police handled it brutally or clumsily (with pepper spray and mass arrests in New York, with tear-gas projectiles in Oakland, with evictions in Denver, Nashville and Atlanta), it picked up strength. Without much encouragement from political leaders, it picked up strength.

But the lives of movements, as of persons or nations, do not proceed along straight lines, zooming ever upward and onward. There come points where utopian longings for community wrestle with practical exigencies, where the question of how a few hundred people shall make decisions vies with the question of how to leverage activist numbers, how to strategize, to change the political balance of power. Occupy has reached the stage where both internal and external pressures are mounting to force a new evolution.

Some of the movement is getting more organized, for it is not only jaundiced outsiders who grow disgruntled with the free-form, consensus-driven decision-making that has been running the camps. Around the country, many Occupy supporters are thinking a week or two ahead, or more — as I write, there is a call for a month of coordinated demonstrations worldwide — while others are just trying to get through the night, to cope with the homeless, the police, occasional provocateur vandals (as in Oakland in November), and the winter. At MIT, designers met in late October to plan winterized structures for Occupy Boston. Conference calls link members of 80 groups nationwide, talking about strategy and tactics.

And now, despite its mainly proud programlessness, Zuccotti’s own decision-making General Assembly has endorsed the idea of a representative July 4, 2012, convention to be held (where else?) in Philadelphia, to agree to make specific demands on all branches of government, all aimed at reversing the decades-long trend toward Dickensian inequality.

Out of the chaos of movements — especially leaderless ones — patterns emerge, but there are so many moving parts, so many contingencies (point-blank firing! tear-gas canisters! October snow! midnight police raids!), it is impossible to tell exactly which patterns are going to crystallize and prevail. Many things are going to happen at once. Here’s a chain of questions to keep in mind:

• Will the “inner movement,” the encampments, agree on a more or less coherent strategy for the coming months? They haven’t yet, though there are yearnings.

• Whatever the inner movement does, will the “outer movement” of unions and progressives step up with its own political program, a sort of “Compact with America” that politicians would have to adhere to in order to win the support of Occupy supporters in 2012? They haven’t yet.

• If the answer to either of the above questions is yes, will some or many Democrats, not least the ones in the White House, campaign as the voice of “the 99 percent,” recognizing that the movement in its popularity has granted them a gift if they choose to accept it?

• In this event, can the movement actually win any concrete changes in 2012 against fierce Republican opposition and Democratic ambivalence?

• Will the movement remain nonviolent? If it doesn’t, its favorable momentum gets badly disrupted. The high moral ground is indispensable if a movement is to flourish.

More questions than answers. There are no laws that govern moments like this. Distrust all assurances — the movement’s, the pundits’, the politicians’, all. New things happen under the sun — and in the shadows.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently (with Liel Leibovitz), The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.