A year later, Occupy searching for next step

Posted: September 18, 2012

EXACTLY one year ago, Fishtown's Dustin Slaughter was one of a couple of hundred protesters who - turned away from New York's Wall Street by a thick blue wall of cops - streamed into a then-unknown corner of real estate called Zuccotti Park to spend the night. Virtually no one noticed.

Over the next few months, Slaughter, 33, a filmmaker and alternative journalist, became a virtual Zelig of the movement soon known as Occupy Wall Street - always in the picture. He was there when 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and when Occupy Philly took root in Dilworth Plaza. He was eventually busted (and later found not guilty) when the cops finally broke up the Center City encampment on a chilly November night.

A year later, Slaughter says that he's taken a small step back. He's still committed to the movement and had plans to take part in a first-anniversary rally in Lower Manhattan, but he's more focused on writing than protesting. He readily admits that he's a little burned out. And he's not alone.

"I know a lot of people who are working on repairing marriages, getting over depression - a whole list of things," Slaughter said. But he said he believes that many of his Occupy friends are merely taking a break, that "a lot of people still believe in the basic tenets of the movement. They don't want to give it up forever."

In a world where political movements and fads rise and fall faster than you can say "Hula-Hoop," the Occupy movement that started on Wall Street on Sept. 17, 2011, has been a shooting star - one that burned brightly for a brief American autumn, its trail now still faintly visible in the evening sky.

The left-leaning protest movement injected the term "the 1 Percent" and a much-needed debate about income inequality into the national conversation, but there didn't seem to be a Plan B after police shut down the original encampments as last winter arrived. Or, arguably, there were a slew of Plan Bs, none of which took hold - May Day marches, a July 4 quasi-convention here in Philadelphia, smallish protests at the recent political conventions that were dwarfed by law enforcement's helmet-clad armies.

The list of reasons for Occupy's sputtering malaise in 2012 is almost as long as its roster of underwhelming protests. In addition to burnout, there's the failure to focus on one or two core issues, its leaderless style, its penchant for endless meetings, its shunning of electoral politics in a presidential election year and an increasingly confrontational tone with police, including worries about violence on the fringe.

But while experts on the movement tend to agree with most or all of those criticisms, they also stress that another reason some of the movement's less-committed backers have drifted away is success. Occupy caught on with traditional liberals who were frustrated that no one in either party or in the news media was talking about the income gap or issues like student debt. Since then, President Obama and some Democrats have talked the talk - even as action in gridlocked Washington remains elusive.

The Occupy movement "achieved a lot in its first two or three months, but basically it's been treading water ever since then," said Todd Gitlin, who chairs the communications department at Columbia University and is author of the recent book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

Gitlin, a mid-1960s president of the campus group Students for a Democratic Society who left it after some leaders advocated violence, has remained a leading writer about social movements. He said that he sees Occupy essentially divided between an inner circle driven by a passion for the all-consuming protest lifestyle - epitomized by 2011's tent cities - and a more pragmatic group moving toward definable goals - such as a "Robin Hood tax" on the wealthy, stricter Wall Street regulation or the removal of corporate money from politics.

"The time may not be right, but I believe the door remains open to an Occupy 2.0," Gitlin said.

Organizers of a first-anniversary demonstration taking place this week in lower Manhattan told the Nation that they hoped as many as 250 Philadelphians, some on hired buses, would take part in the event. But Slaughter said that the real forward momentum this fall is coming from so-called affinity groups, Occupy offshoots tightly focused on specific issues.

Locally, Occupy advocates point to a group called PHARE - Philadelphians Allied for a Responsible Economy - that is largely aimed at the giant Wells Fargo Bank and seeks to aid victims of foreclosure.

Aaron Troisi, 26, a Unityville, Pa., native and former union organizer who is now in Temple grad school for education, said that PHARE grew out of a sit-in last fall at which he and 13 other Occupiers were arrested. Today, he said, it helps homeowners fighting Wells Fargo in foreclosure and is pressuring the bank to pay back tens of millions of dollars that the Philadelphia School District lost in interest-rate swaps.

Troisi, who graduated from Penn State under a mound of debt, said the Occupy movement initially took off because "everyone in the country was righteously angry and said, 'We don't know what we're going to do but we have to do something.' "

Deborah Zuchman, 65, a former art teacher in Philadelphia schools, was present on the first day of the Occupy Philly encampment last October, telling the Inquirer that she was there for her children and grandchildren. Eleven months later, she said by email that she's now more of a sympathizer than a participant but still believes in the broader goals.

"I think a lot more has to be done with Occupy," she wrote. "I think they can be making more demands that would give us answers and really put the 'fat cats' on the spot."


Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog at Attytood.com.

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