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Is Occupying Public Space Essential to Occupy Wall Street?

Occupy Wall Street is a young movement, but as of its eviction yesterday from Zucotti Park in New York City, it is showing signs of maturing.

OccupyDE tents and signAn article in this morning’s New York Times indicates that a number of those evicted think the time has come to turn their attention to matters other than occupying public space, such as organizing specific protest actions, and connecting with elected officials who are committed to a vigorous reform of the nation’s financial and political institutions.  Several OWS encampments in major U.S. cities, tainted by incidents of violence, were giving the movement a bad name and trying the patience of citizens in “the 99 percent.”  As the Times article suggests, the evictions may actually benefit the movement by putting an end to such unfavorable publicity, and forcing devotees to rethink their strategies, especially in the direction of influencing electoral politics.

As I have observed the painstaking efforts of Occupy Delaware to establish their encampment at Spencer Plaza, an excellent venue due to its proximity to banks and government offices of the state, city, and nation, I have reflected on the tactic of occupying public space.  What has this tactic achieved; and is it absolutely necessary to the movement?  Here are my thoughts:

  • Occupying public space with sizeable numbers gets the attention of major media, and thus provides a powerful early means for awakening the masses to their common grievances.
  • Encampment is a symbolic gesture. It links with other events in our nation’s history, when forgotten, oppressed, and dispossessed citizens gathered and squatted to make their voices heard.
    Encampment provides an easy way for citizens curious about the movement to meet participants face-to-face, ask questions, and make contributions.
  • Camping in the same place gives people a sustained  period to make friends with people of like mind, and to practice methods of democratic assembly.  Thus, encampment is an excellent tool for schooling a movement, sharing and refining ideas, building interpersonal trust and establishing networks for collaborating on specific tasks.

An historical footnote:  Peter Spencer, the founder of the first Black independent church in America, which once stood on the location where Occupy Delaware’s tents are now pitched, Spencer Plaza, started an annual camp meeting called The August Quarterly.  The August Quarterly was a religious gathering of people of color in the American colonies, many of whom were slaves.  Some masters permitted their attendance because they did not understand to what extent that encampment, which they thought was merely a religious festival, was in fact abetting the Underground Railroad, and schooling a civil rights movement which finally came to full fruition in the 1960s.

Now, concerning the disadvantages of encampment:

  • As more and more people join an encampment it becomes harder for the leaders to maintain discipline over hygiene and personal behavior.  The popularity of joining an encampment increases participation to the extent that the ideals of the movement are likely to be compromised.  Occupy Delaware’s choice of Spencer Plaza is fortuitous not only because of its proximity to seats of power, but also because of its small size.  There are now about twenty tents on the plaza, and there isn’t room for many more, so it will be difficult for the Occupy Delaware encampment to grow so big that it gets “out of hand.”
  • Weather!  Fewer people will be hearty enough to keep tenting out when the temperature drops below freezing; and for those without adequate training and equipment, persisting may even prove deadly.

bundled against cold

I am encouraged by the response of OWS devotees to the closing of encampments in several cities.  As I said in my introduction, the movement is showing signs of maturing.  It is coming to realize that although occupying public space was an essential starting tactic, it is not absolutely essential to the movement’s survival.

This winter Occupiers in many parts of the U.S. will need heated rooms in which to continue schooling the movement and making plans to influence electoral politics.  I have posted these thoughts at because houses of worship can provide such shelter.  The time has come for people of faith who are dedicated to caring for the poor, and securing a government which is open and just, to support Occupy Wall Street.  As encampments diminish in importance, other means of facilitating free public assemblies must increase.  I call interfaith activists to this responsibility.


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