Exactly six months after the first protestors spread out their sleeping bags in an unloved little park in Lower Manhattan, sparking a movement that swept the country and captured the public imagination, the scene in Zuccotti Park early in the afternoon on Saturday was subdued. There were a few familiar faces -- the guy who manages the Twitter account, the girl with the blue hair. But walking around, you were more struck by what you didn’t see: the library, the kitchen, the tents. The ex-banker with the cowboy hat and the facial tattoos. On the plot of concrete where members of the media group had once fielded questions from a seemingly endless parade of reporters, someone had written "media tent" in chalk. In another spot: "comfort station." And on the north side of the park, by a granite bench, "I slept here."
Sixth months in, the Occupy movement has largely disappeared from the parks and squares where it originated, and from the newspapers and social media sites where it blew up. But it isn't gone. The occupiers see traces of it in the way that the president now talks about income inequality, in the smattering of candidates for various local offices who've adopted the Occupy rhetoric, in the proliferation of concepts like "the 99 percent."
Occupy is at a crossroads, and many in the movement are quick to point out that the biggest challenges lie ahead. If they're to win their fight against economic injustice -- or capitalism, or whatever term they use to describe a system in which the richest one percent owns 40 percent of the wealth -- they'll have to get a lot more people on board, people who never had the time or inclination to camp out in a park. This is what activists call "the hard work of community organizing." But they sound hopeful.
Devin Balkind, 25, is as emblematic of the changes in the movement as anyone, despite dutifully pointing out on Saturday that he is a "white male" and thus anxious about the media's tendency to focus on the narratives of people like him. Raised as a "New York Times liberal" from the Upper West Side ("classic 1 percent upbringing but with really good bagels and lox"), Balkind crashed a conference today at Pace University that tends to attract people who, unlike many occupiers, see themselves as members of the traditional left.
He's been involved in Occupy since day two, and first learned about it when he read the original call to action in the magazine Adbusters. Talking to him, you would never guess that movement had lost momentum. He thinks that utopia is just around the corner, maybe. "I hope we're approaching the last of the bad days." He envisions a parallel society in which occupiers grow their own food, fuel their cars with vegetable oil, build and run their own hospitals and other infrastructure, and pay each other for goods and services using a "points and badges" currency, like in the "World of Warcraft" videogame. It might sound unfeasible, even crazy, but as Balkind points out, so did the call to "occupy Wall Street" back in September. He predicts that the movement will enter this bold new phase in months.
"This spring and summer," he said "it's going to be f*cking awesome. I hope."
After police around the country cleared the camps in November and December, the activists retreated indoors, to church basements and offices and apartments, and they've gotten more focused and strategic, reaching out to established community organizations and protesting specific issues, like student debt and Mitt Romney. Many say they expect the movement to head back outside in the warmer weather, and indeed, later on this beautiful March afternoon, protestors marched to Zuccotti and some were arrested.
But just a few blocks away, at Pace University, perhaps a hundred other occupiers were engaging in earnest conversations at the Left Forum, a conference that grew out of a socialist summit founded in the '60s. Robert Gabrielsky, 69, was at the first one in 1964, and he's been coming regularly ever since. A desk clerk at an Atlantic City hotel, he said his father was a trade unionist. "I've been involved in every radical movement this nation has ever seen," he said. At the conference, he said, attendance has varied from "just short of 1,500 to what is now better than 3,000." This year's conference was the largest ever, he said, and he credited the high turnout to Occupy. "There's a beginning of a resurgence of a mass opposition," he said. "It's not a mass opposition resurgence yet, but it has the beginnings of one."
The Pace courtyard looked like a sort of miniature Zuccotti, with its granite benches and people handing out left-wing fliers. Balkind scored a few drags of a cigarette from Derrick Davis, a young man who said he was related to Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, the Baltimore woman who played the character of the same name on television show "The Wire." Davis said he volunteers for an effort to unionize mall workers in Baltimore.
Nearby, Camille Barbagallo sat on a bench with a pack of cigarettes. She'd come to New York from London, where she'd been involved with the Occupy camp outside St. Paul's Cathedral. A student of post-colonial capitalism at the University of London, she said Occupy reminded her of the anti-globalization movement that took root in Seattle more than a decade ago, and she thought it was up against some of the same challenges.
Back then, she said, the success of the initial protests exceeded everyone's expectations "and then it settled back down." She said she thought this was a good time for the occupiers to "pause and reflect," and to learn from the mistakes the anti-globalization activists made 10 years ago.
"The question," she said, "is about how this can be sustainable."