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Occupy Wall Street, Act II: Go local

With many encampments razed or in jeopardy, Occupy Wall Street needs a second act. For now, many activists are settling on issues of concern to local residents. Will that weaken the movement, or strengthen it?

By Staff writer / December 5, 2011

Participants in Occupy Miami, part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, pitched tents in a park by government buildings downtown. Unlike Occupiers further north, they won’t have to contend with freezing weather.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Los Angeles

As their encampments are razed, or as their tent cities dwindle with the onset of cold weather, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement – now almost three months old – needs a second act. And organizers of this grass-roots movement, which asserts that "the 99 percent" of Americans who are not Wall Street bankers, hotel chain heiresses, or real estate titans are getting a raw deal these days, appear to have lit upon an answer, for now: Go local.

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So it is that the Occupiers in Knoxville, Tenn., plan to start occupying foreclosed homes, to dramatize banks' actions. In Detroit, protesters are collecting provisions for the city's neediest. And in Los Angeles, Occupy activists are readying for a Dec. 12 action to close the Port of Los Angeles for a day – part of a larger call for port closings from Tacoma, Wash., to San Diego to protest perceived union-busting tactics against organized longshore workers.

The question is whether Occupy forces are scattering their fire in so many directions that the movement will inevitably fragment and dissolve, or whether they will grow in strength and accomplishments by proving former House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill's famous pronouncement that, in the end, "all politics is local."

Until lately, the movement has been largely about occupying ground in the name of the 99 percent – and trying to hold that ground in the face of city and police intervention. Since Sept. 17, when the first Occupiers settled in on Wall Street in New York, thousands of protesters have been arrested in cities across the United States (usually for refusing to obey police orders or for resisting arrest). The Occupy movement has been a way for people to rise up and vent their frustrations, but critics fault it for being unwilling or unable to devise a national action plan around something concrete, such as backing the Democrats' push to raise taxes on millionaires or proposing a constitutional amendment to limit special-interest money in political campaigns.

But that is as it should be, say those involved with the movement as well as its close observers.

"The question of engaging with local issues brings inherent challenges to the Occupy movement, but it is also the only way it can really move forward," says George Ciccariello-Maher, a political theorist and assistant professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, a city where police cleared an Occupy encampment on Nov. 30. The alternative is to remain on the level of macroeconomic analysis and national issues – and to jump into national electoral politics or lobbying. At this point in the movement's development, he says, those approaches would be difficult to sustain.

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