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What happens when OWS can't occupy Zuccotti Park?

Without land to 'occupy,' as even friendly mayors in cities like Oakland and New York move to close encampments such as the one at Zuccotti Park, what remains of the OWS movement?

By Staff writer / November 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protesters hold a general assembly meeting inside an enclosed site near Canal Street on Tuesday. Hundreds of police officers in riot gear before dawn Tuesday raided Zuccotti Park, evicting and arresting hundreds of protesters from what has become the epicenter of the worldwide movement protesting corporate greed and economic inequality.

Seth Wenig/AP

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As Occupy Wall Street faced forceful eviction from its Zuccotti Park nerve center early Tuesday morning, the two-month old protest movement faced its first existential question: If occupation fails, is the protest moot?

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Inspired in part by the "Arab Spring," the American protest encampments that popped up in dozens of cities from coast to coast have earned support from a wide range of political and popular figures and touched a raw nerve in a country beset by high unemployment and a slide in personal financial health.

But as police in Oakland, Denver, Portland, and now New York evict camp dwellers and hold their ground, a critical moment has arrived that may ultimately test Occupy's political will: Is it ready to mature into a political insurgency with specific and stated goals and a structure that can engage existing institutions and effect change?

"For a social movement to perpetuate itself and [push] change, it must develop … an organizational structure able to wield power, develop specific demands, and fashion them into a coherent programmatic agenda – all without losing the enthusiasm of the base," John Cioffi, a political science professor at the University of California-Riverside, said recently. "This is a transformation that few movements can manage."

Occupy appears to be at such a moment now. To be sure, protesters say they're undeterred even as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered hundreds of police, some of them wearing riot gear, to clear Zuccotti Park early Tuesday, an action met with derision and renewed calls for action from protesters.

"Occupy Wall Street has renewed a sense of hope," an OWS statement released after the raid said. "It has revived a belief in community and awakened a revolutionary spirit too long silenced."

But a number of recent deaths, including a suicide and several drug overdoses, in various camps, added to complaints about noise, drug use, and sanitation problems, have tarnished the movement and affected what some call the "optics" of public perception.

A Siena College poll released Tuesday showed that 66 percent of New York voters don't believe Occupy Wall Street represents 99 percent of people, but it also showed that 57 percent of New Yorkers believe protesters should be able to camp in public parks. The poll also showed that support for the Occupy movement had waned among New Yorkers in the last month, from 49 percent to 45 percent.

Indeed, a build-up of what protesters have mostly insisted are "isolated incidents" swayed even pro-Occupy mayors like Oakland's Jean Quan. After facing heavy pressure from politicians and police unions, Mayor Quan ordered that Frank Ogawa Plaza again be swept free of tents on Monday, even as two of her staff resigned in protest against police tactics. Police in Portland, Ore., Burlington, Vt., and Denver have also evicted protesters from urban camps in the last few days.

"We came to this point because Occupy Oakland, I think, began to take a different path than the original movement," Quan said. "The encampment became a place where we had repeated violence and last week a murder. We had to bring the camp to an end before more people got hurt."

After zigzagging between support and opposition, Mayor Bloomberg sent in police early Tuesday morning, arresting 200 people, sweeping Zuccotti Park clean, and sending the remaining protesters in search of a new park to occupy.

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