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?
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.
“No right is absolute and with every right comes responsibilities," Bloomberg said in a statement. "The First Amendment gives every New Yorker the right to speak out – but it does not give anyone the right to sleep in a park or otherwise take it over to the exclusion of others – nor does it permit anyone in our society to live outside the law.”
Part of the changing dynamic of the camps has been that a growing number of homeless people have become part of the protests, and have brought problems with them into the camps. In fact, a new study by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that there's been a 7 percent increase in laws against sleeping in public places since 2009, bolstering Occupy's arguments that the rich are fighting a war of attrition against the poor.
To be sure, the movement has widespread support, and some commentators say the movement is "winning" because it has focused debate on income inequality. And despite the emergence of social problems at some of the camps and the growing crackdowns by even sympathetic mayors, the "occupy" strategy is likely to remain a key part of the Occupy movement, some sociologists say.
"I don't think the camps are absolutely vital to the life of movement, but I do think they're quite important," says Heather Gautney, a sociology professor and expert on social movements at Fordham University, in New York. "This is a movement that's decided not to be an arm of a political party, so the community building that goes on in these camps is crucial and part of what they're trying to create, which is a political community."
At the same time, there's a growing sense both inside and outside the movement that new tactics or "resets" of the camps – which could necessitate the emergence of leaders or protesters focusing more sharply on issues like tuition cost increases, a cause being pushed among occupiers in California – may be necessary.
"There's a growing sense among the occupiers that they need a new strategy, so in some ways breaking up the encampments, which had become kind of static, may force the emergence of new strategies," says T.V. Reed, an American studies professor at Washington State University, in Pullman. "Unlike other past [protest] occupations ... it's not so crucial in this case to have a particular site occupied, and it's certainly not the only tactic for it to be successful."
One emerging story line is embattled protesters retreating to establish camps on college campuses, where there may be more sympathy to their cause, but which could also marginalize the movement as a student protest only. With protesters increasingly rousted and searching for new digs, those who have cheered protesters on are waiting for the Occupy Wall Street movement to evolve to its next stage.
"Now that it's been kicked out of the house, it's time for the 99% movement to grow up," Sally Kohn, a politial strategist, writes for CNN.com.