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ANALYSIS

Will they still occupy us tomorrow? Add to ...

For the Occupy movement, this has been the week of evictions and confrontations – the most visible sign that the international demonstration against economic inequality has reached a turning point. What happens next will determine whether the protest can evolve beyond an occupation of space and turn into the world-changing force it has often claimed to be, as encampments modelled on Zuccotti Park in Manhattan proliferated across the Western world, including Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver.

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The Arab Spring was the guiding model for Occupy – thousands of people standing in the public square, bearing witness to their pent-up demands for radical change. But the 200-plus arrests during Tuesday night's police raid on Occupy Wall Street and the 300 more during its Day of Action on Thursday present a more disturbing scenario for protest's endgame. The Canadian outposts are awaiting the decisions of judges and politicians (an injunction preventing Occupy Toronto's eviction has been extended to Monday).

After a mere two months – which may be no time at all in the time frame of civil-rights movements, but is forever in the shortened attention span of both popular culture and impatient law enforcement – the protest has clearly reached the crossroads. Stay put and you're breaking the law, provoking the authorities into the kind of showdowns that are bound to undermine a peaceful and hopeful message. Clear out and you lose both the visibility and the united sense of commitment that made the pop-up protesters such a potent expression of collective dissatisfaction and engagement.

Surveys seem to show that support for the movement is ebbing: Public Policy Polling reported this week that the Occupy movement's goals are supported by 33 per cent of those polled and opposed by 45 per cent, an increase of nine percentage points on the negative side. That makes the movement's heroic claim to represent the disenfranchised 99 per cent look particularly deluded.

But polls about a movement so purposely vague, leaderless and undefined can supply only a blunt instrument for understanding. Maybe people don't see anything productive in confrontations and evictions, which is understandable, whoever is to blame. Maybe they value the underlying message about the harm done by economic inequality but don't see a remedy emerging from two months of occupations, because that physical presence has become too static and humdrum to represent a revolutionary idea.

Umberto Eco, the Italian cultural theorist and bestselling The Name of the Rose author, has been watching the Occupy movement with both fascination and concern. Like many commentators of his generation, he compares the street-based movement to the student protests of 1968 that challenged a stratified social system and provoked a generational shift. But he sees a key problem in the current tactics of protest.

“This time, it seems there is indignation but no positive suggestions,” he says. “In 1968, there was, at least, a Marxist idea of opposition, right or wrong. Here, there is only revolt. So I am waiting to see what comes next.”

Something's got to give: Winter alone will put pressure on Occupy to evolve from a series of encampments distracted by sanitation and law-and-order issues into a broader-based movement of ideas and actions. Adbusters, the Vancouver-based group that inspired the initial Wall Street occupation, has issued a tactical statement calling for “precision disruptions” that do not depend on a laborious tent-city infrastructure to make a point.

Yet guerrilla theatre can become its own form of marginalization, as alternative culture's aversion to the norm undermines the universality that gave Occupy its democratic credentials.

‘They're going to strike out'

To move ahead, it is first necessary to determine what has been accomplished by the protest in a mere two months. Anyone eager to be dismissive of the Occupy movement – and there is no shortage of commentators railing against its optimistic vagaries, substandard hygiene and weird fashion choices – has first to contend with the fact that billionaires now take it seriously.

One key billionaire in particular: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As his police force was doing its best to eradicate the protest on Thursday, the mayor delivered a stark assessment of the social pain and dislocation that the demonstrations have laid bare: “The public is getting scared,” he said, in language meant to bring his plutocrat audience to attention. “They don't know what to do and they're going to strike out and they don't know where. … They just know the system isn't working, and they don't want to wait around.”

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