Police sweeps of Occupy Wall Street urban encampments have sent protesters across the country looking for new digs. In a growing number of cities, including New York, Detroit, Oakland, and Los Angeles, that means packing up the sleeping bags and moving indoors to set up ad hoc organizing spaces in places like school auditoriums, unused government buildings, churches, and foreclosed properties.
While the move indoors may be a logical step as winter looms, political scientists, historians, and media strategists alike – including Adbusters, the media foundation whose anti-capitalist tract launched the Occupy movement this summer – say it’s the best next tactic for the evolving movement, cold temperatures or not.
“It makes sense for many reasons,” says James Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, noting that the original Occupy Wall Street group has already begun to hold meetings in buildings away from Zuccotti Park. “It certainly makes it easier to organize information such as [press] releases, but perhaps more important it provides a way for people who support the movement, but who cannot camp out, to stay involved and connected.”
Mr. Lafferty, who has helped Occupy Los Angeles protesters look for indoor space, is now aiding the group to form a nonprofit foundation because, as Lafferty points out, “the city has arrangements with other nonprofits to lease space for as little as a dollar a year.”
While some activists are holding firm to the importance of the open-air style of protests, Occupy groups in other cities have already moved ahead with plans to move from the streets to the indoors. Detroit protesters told the Detroit Free Press this week that they have secured a building in southwest Detroit and have plans to decamp there to organize for the winter, “and come back stronger in the spring.”
This is the advice Adbusters posted on its website earlier this week, counseling activists to pack up on Dec. 17, the three-month anniversary of the original Wall Street occupation. Kalle Lasn, the Estonian founder of the Canadian-based Adbusters, urged protesters to come inside and “use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad projects ready to rumble next Spring.”
Critics suggest that the evictions signal something different. “It doesn't matter where Occupy Wall Street conducts its protest. The movement is not destined to fail. It has failed already,” says Mario Almonte, PR strategist and blogger for the Huffington Post, via email. “OWS is like an underpowered rocket that can't seem to clear the atmosphere and break free of earth's gravitational pull to accomplish its mission. The problem doesn't lie in the message, which very few Americans disagree with. The problem lies in their method.”
Harvard University historian Nancy Koehn agrees that location doesn’t matter – but not because the movement lacks meaning or momentum.
“I don’t think location matters at all,” Ms. Koehn says. After all, “where did the Jacobins meet, or the Southern coalition, or Nelson Mandela?” What matters is momentum, calls to action, and some kind of program for participation, she says. “This is a huge gaping call to action now for this group which has galvanized attention, emotions, and sentiments like nothing we’ve seen in 30 or 40, or maybe even 60 years in America.”
Losing the most visible symbol of the movement – the urban encampments – puts an added burden on the next phase, points out Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson. “They’re going to have to create their own media moments,” he says. They are going to have to come up with actions that will continue to keep them in the public mind, but that don’t alienate potential supporters.”
Timing will be important, Mr. Johnson says, noting that the holidays are not a good time frame for messy demonstrations or violent clashes. “Americans want to be able to enjoy the holidays with family and friends and don’t want to have negative messages intruding.”