As the cops moved in to clear Zuccotti Park, some of the protesters sang the Beatles song "Revolution," which was in some ways apt. You will never hear a more conflicted song about modern political protests than "Revolution." Count me out. Count me out in. John Lennon couldn't figure out exactly where he wanted to wind up.
From the beginning, people complained that Occupy Wall Street was too squishy -- all about emotion and lifestyle with no specific political agenda. Just like the song: You say you'll change the constitution. Well, you know/We all want to change your head.
But you could admire and support the movement while still admitting its limitations.
Now in New York, the question is whether you can support the movement but not its tents.
The city says Occupy Wall Street can hold protests in the park, but it can't pitch tents. One judge -- who was very clearly selected by the OWS lawyers as the most sympathetic possible jurist in the city -- said camping out was part of the political expression. But the city appealed, and a state Supreme Court judge ruled that while the demonstrators could go back into the park, they could not camp out with tents and sleeping bags.
Although this doesn't happen very often these days, in this case most of New York is going to be on the side of Mayor Bloomberg.
New York is a place that tolerates an incredible amount of peculiar behavior, but the anything-goes nature of our world actually makes us more dependent on a basic sense of order than other places, where the streets are empty at 2 a.m. and people don't live out so much of their lives in public places. We're easy-going, but we have some of the toughest laws on gun possession in the country. We want everybody to do their own thing, but we also want them to pick up their dogs' poop on the sidewalk.
You can look at the Zuccotti Park encampment two ways. One was that the protesters were trying to create a sort of utopian community, with free food and a free library with thousands of books, and a lot of voluntary committees in charge of everything from security to sanitation. The other was that the scene had degenerated into a gathering place for hapless street people and borderline criminals who preyed on them.
In the end, there may have been a bit of both. But what's inarguable is that attention had begun to shift from the political message to the cultural one. And when lifestyle becomes the center of your political statement, you're only as powerful as your least appealing hangers-on. The people who knocked over garbage cans in the lower Manhattan streets didn't represent OWS. Except that they were in front of the TV cameras, so they did.
The protesters may appeal again, but the Bloomberg edict could really wind up helping OWS in the long run. Even the utopian vision of Zuccotti Park was not really to the point of the protests, which were about the way most Americans are slipping out of the middle class as the top one percent is getting more and more obscenely wealthy. OWS can drive that home without living on the street. They can still protest in the park. They can still march. They can still make themselves heard. And we will be back talking about what they're saying, and not whether or not their campsite is clean.
Don't you know it's gonna be all right/all right, all right/all right, all right, all right.