Occupy D.C. Has Already Won and Already Lost
It's official: Mayor Vince Gray wants Occupy D.C. out of McPherson Square. News broke last night that Gray had sent a letter to the National Park Service requesting that the protesters be relocated to the Freedom Plaza encampment for public-health reasons. "The most serious of these concerns include dangerous rat infestation as well as the serious potential for communicable disease, hypothermia, and food borne illness," Gray wrote.
The news was met with a predictable flurry of outrage on Twitter: If rats were enough to get you evicted, critics noted, much of D.C. would have to be relocated. Why pick on activists, especially ahead of next week's Occupy Congress gathering?
In fact, it's been clear for some time that the mayor—for all his initial support for the protest—has been heading toward this position. The encampment, of course, puts the mayor in an awkward position. Ditto Barack Obama, whose federal government actually controls the square. Neither man wants to be seen as opposed to Occupy's cause, but they also have bureaucracies to run. Considering that D.C. has the last large encampment in the country, we'd be willing to bet Gray is envious of his counterparts who were able to get rid of their protesters without dealing with the federal government. And it's likely that the Park Service would rather not have to deal with Occupy at all, especially since it faces legislative oversight from the likes of Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who's been demanding to know why the protesters haven't been evicted.
Against that backdrop, public health concerns—rats!—could represent a reluctant pol's deus ex machina.
This latest development, though, also represents a major flaw of Occupy. Yeah, establishmentarian critics like to poke the movement for not having clear goals. But the bigger issue is one of stagecraft. It's fairly clear that when the encampment ends, whether that's today or this month or some other time, it will look like a defeat—a case of cops or mayors or federal bureaucrats sending the campers scurrying. And those optics will be a shame, because, in changing the national conversation, Occupy has won big. "One percent" wasn't a phrase in usage pre-Occupy. Now it's everywhere.
Here's some unsolicited advice for Occupy: Figure out a way to declare victory.
A good protest, after all, works a bit like a concert. Everything builds towards that rousing finale, a moment of triumph that sends the audience confidently out into the night. No one feels the same about a show that goes on and on until the band runs out of energy or the audience drift off or the stadium maintenance crew cuts off the electricity.
Why shuffle off when they can go out with a bang?
Occupy D.C.'s end will be the symbolic conclusion of this stage of the U.S. Occupy movement. Shouldn't it end on Occupy D.C.'s terms? Here's what we think they should do: Announce an end to occupancy on Jan. 18—the day after their planned protest on Capitol Hill—and invite all the departed campers, or the occupiers evicted from other cities, to come show their strength. The crowds will grow, the images will be impressive, and the sense of success will dominate the coverage.
Which will also ensure that, when the movement plans its next act, the momentum will be even stronger.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery