OWS 2.0: Tactics and Tone Vary for November 17 Protests

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Are the protests on November 17 going to ratchet up the civil disobedience to show that eviction hasn’t weakened protesters’ resolve, or an opportunity to demonstrate a broad post-encampment solidarity across the country? Depends on whom you ask.

The national day of action was planned before Mayor Bloomberg initiated a late-night clearance of Zuccotti Park, but the confrontation has rewritten the script for the national day of Occupy protests scheduled for November 17, or #N17 as it’s known on Twitter. Organized labor, progressive activist groups like MoveOn are encouraging participation in local demonstrations on Thursday, but their focus, and the militancy of their tactics, vary widely.

Here in New York, the day will be a combination of envelope-pushing direct actions and mass demonstrations.

"It's an opportunity to come out and for people to demonstrate their support for an economic justice movement in whatever way they feel comfortable," Han Shan, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street, said of the plans to mark the two-month anniversary of the protests. "There are people who are fed up and who feel like it's time to take nonviolent direct action to stop business as usual on Wall Street. And I think there are people who want to come with their kids and their grandmothers and join us in the streets for a festive celebration of what we've achieved."  

Organizers announced the actions with a decidedly radical tone on Sunday. “ANNOUNCEMENT - This Thursday, We Shut Down Wall Street.” A tweet from @OccupyWallStNYC read, and that was before protesters were cleared from Zuccotti Park. Fliers for the Thursday protests include early morning actions on Wall Street to “confront Wall Street with the stories of people on the frontlines of economic injustice.” That will be followed by afternoon gatherings at transit stations in all five boroughs for "subway speakouts" and will culminate in a mass protest in the shadow of City Hall in Foley Square.

The day will do much to cast the image of the next phase of Occupy Wall Street as the court order barring tents from Zuccotti Park signals the end of the Occupy movement’s encampment-based phase. A diverse and broad-based turnout could cast Bloomberg as a modern-day Bull Connor who made the mistake of pressing back too hard against protesters. Or the outrage over the evictions could ignite more confrontations that squander public sympathy for Occupy’s message along with its messengers.

But in their lead-up, how far those protests will go — and how much demonstrations will push into civil disobedience — isn’t clear, even for some supporters. “Could someone please clarify whether the plan is have a presence at the subways and bridges or to disrupt transportation?” asked Patrina Chamney on the event’s Facebook page on Tuesday. “If it's the latter, it doesn't seem like such a good idea to me. I'd hate to see a lot of people alienated due to an error in strategy.” No one immediately responded, but Shan clarified, "The actions on the subway are not about stopping transit or disrupting transit in anyway. They're about building community." 

Organizers are arming participants with the basics of nonviolent protest with civil disobedience trainings in preparation for Thursday, and directing them to fliers that include tips on “basic blockading.” 

The media tips on the organizing website occupydaysofaction.com also emphasize the importance of thinking through the optics.  “An essential step in planning your action is to work backwards from the photograph you'd like to see in the next day's paper,” reads the 2003 manual developed by The Ruckus Society, a group that has organized acts of civil disobedience for environmental and human rights causes.

The Bloomberg administration is also bracing for the day. "We are certainly anticipating tens of thousands of people protesting, aimed at significant disruption of the daily lives of the people of this city," Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson said at a Wednesday press conference. 

In contrast, the tone at another local gathering, Occupy Syracuse, is more reserved and academic, emphasizing a panel discussion over shutting anything down. There's a march in Syracuse too, but it's followed by a forum about wage theft. Organizers there are also working in conjunction with labor, with a morning event "against austerity" being planned with the AFL-CIO. 

For its part, the the AFL-CIO is branding it a little differently in their call to join events on November 17. The union’s calling it the “Infrastructure Investment Day of Action” and directing supporters to find local “bridge actions,” like this one in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where supporters are marching to three bridges “to ‘Occupy’ the bridges and alert the community to the dangerous bridges.” This event stops short of civil disobedience, though. “We will not actually block the bridges but will be on the sidewalk and walk across the crosswalk (a lot!)with banners.”

Organized labor is turning out its members in New York City on November 17, but they’re focusing on the evening demonstration rather than the confrontations to delay the opening of the trading floor in the morning. The Strong Economy for All coalition, which includes the United Federation of Teachers, 32BJ SEIU, 1199 SEIU, and the Communication Workers of America, are turning out members to the Foley Square march. The Communication Workers are tacking the demonstration onto the end of a march from Albany that the union had organized in its ongoing protest against Verizon.

In Washington, liberal policy groups are trying to channel the November 17 energy into policy on Capital Hill. “We will warn Congress against any "Super Committee" deal that cuts our retirement security and fails to create jobs for the 99%,” reads an email alert for the Campaign for America’s Future. It was at this group’s “Take Back the American Dream” conference in early October that marked the Occupy movement’s first real break into the mainstream as the assembled policy advocates and activists rallied around the diffuse protests.

The movement has already shifted the talking points in Washington, said Robert Borosage, the co-director of the group, and he sees Thursday as an opportunity to push the conversation toward concrete policy decisions.  

”Politicians in Washington haven’t quite heard yet how much Occupy Wall Street has changed the ground they are walking on. And on November 17 they’re going to hear some of the rumbles of that,” said Borosage.

As for the various tactics in the mix for Thursday, the campaign's communication’s director Liz Rose was more direct in explaining its particular pitch to its supporters. “The people on our list don’t usually occupy things,” she said. “They’re liberal, so that’s why we want to give people different on-ramps.”

Occupy supporters also point to the long history in American protests knitting together smaller bands of militant activists who push ahead with civil disobedience with broad-based demonstrations to illustrate a cause’s broader appeal.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, compares the movement to the Progressive Era that arose after a financial crisis in the late nineteenth century. It also patched together various approaches to change the course of American politics. 

“There were lots of tactics, they involved social mobilization. They involved consumer activism, shareholder activism, political activism, winning office," Sachs told WNYC's Leonard Lopate, with actions spread across two decades. "Occupy Wall Street has been around for eight weeks. It’s remarkable how it has changed the American discussion in 8 weeks, but it’s only the very beginning." 

But movements with a broad spectrum of protest — from law-abiding protests to deliberate civil disobedience — has also historically opened up another front for debate about whether they are dangerous or just. 

“We demonstrate. If you’re against the demonstration you call it a riot, and if you’re for it you call it a demonstration.” Gloria Steinem told WNYC last week. For now, she sees the movement’s diffuseness as a marker of its impressive reach. “It’s amazing, it’s everywhere. And it is amazingly democratic. It’s not without internal problems and who the spokespeople are, but it is amazingly inclusive.”

That inclusiveness can also breed tension about strategy, said David Levering Lewis, a social historian at New York University. "Usually it divides between the more senior members of the movement, or the more experienced, who say we want to pace ourselves in a way that we bring public opinion along with us," he said. "The younger and new to the game say no, no, no - let's push this." 

Hanging over that dynamic this week are the protesters' reaction to Bloomberg's clearance of the park, which add another dimension of tension to the New York City protests. "Confrontation now it seems is the name of the game," Lewis said of the city's actions. Shan said that Occupy planners have taken care to emphasize the continuation of the demonstration's "nonviolent posture."

The November 17 actions across the country, then, will be a very public test of the Occupy movement's consensus on a way forward, particularly now that the movement has lost the place that was its focal point.