By Saki Knafo
In cities around the country today, hundreds of Occupy protestors gathered for what the movement described in a release as its “largest coordinated action this year.”
Since a wave of nationwide evictions effectively ended the movement’s tent-city phase three months ago, Occupy activists have been trying to regain momentum. It’s unclear whether today’s event lived up to those expectations, but its organizers presented it as an important step forward.
In Washington, D.C., police arrested between eight and 12 people outside the headquarters of agriculture company Monsanto, according to protesters. In California, protestors blocked the entrance to three Walmart distribution centers. In New York, about 100 people demonstrated outside of Pfizer and gathered in Bryant Park for a talk by journalist Matt Taibbi. There were smaller demonstrations in cities from Albany, N.Y. to Tulsa, Okla to Seattle, WA.
A hundred people doesn’t approach the movement’s turnouts at its height between September and November, but the New York event differed from earlier protests in several ways that could prove important for the movement’s future.
Remember when the main knock against the Occupy movement was that it didn’t have clear goals? While it’s true that the movement still lacks a cohesive message, its participants lately have focused on a host of specific issues. Today’s event wasn’t a spontaneous angry outburst at the 1 percent or Wall Street greed; it was a carefully planned attack on the reputation of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a non-profit organization that unites corporations and legislators to shape policy.
Last summer, two months before the first protesters showed up in Zuccotti Park, the Center of Media and Democracy obtained copies of ALEC’s “model” bills and published them on the website, ALEC Exposed. David Osborn, one of the organizers of today’s events and a participant in Occupy Portland, said he hoped today’s events would draw attention to ALEC, which he described as a “particularly potent symbol of the failed system that we have in which profit and greed have become more important than everything else.”
He considered today’s events a success. He spoke from Portland, Ore., where he said 500 or 600 people were marching and “talking to everybody on the way,” and noted anticipatory coverage of the event in the New York Times and on NPR. Today, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine accompanied the marchers, said Osborn. “We’ve brought ALEC out of the shadows and into the light,” he said.
Over the past few months, media coverage has clearly dwindled, and so have the crowds. For a movement that once measured crowds in the thousands, today wasn’t great.
The weather was partly to blame. Protestors in D.C., New York and Portland had to contend with the sort of cold rain that has people using profanity when referring to February. Considering the conditions, protesters said they felt encouraged.
“Clearly it’s not the numbers we had, but we’re building here,” said Jeffrey Brewer, an organizer of the New York gathering.
Although the plans originated in Portland, activists in other cities quickly joined in, coordinating the protests through a conference-call network used to plan several national events in recent months. Many activists said they hope to use this network to plan more nationwide protests in coming months, especially during the upcoming Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., and the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla.
Joan Donovan, an activist with Occupy LA who helps run the network, said activists nationwide are starting to work together to ensure their protests “are bigger and much more amplified.”
But Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia University who is writing a book on the movement, said he wasn’t sure such efforts would succeed.
“There may not be a unitary Occupy Wall Street in a year,” he said. “There are so many moving parts. It’s a huge and sprawling and not altogether visible beast.”