Tonight, news broke that the recently-evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters have lost their appeal to maintain encampments in Zuccotti Park. It’s unclear what effect this will have on the broader Occupy movement; while it could weaken the New York protest at the movement’s forefront, Occupy movements in other cities say these developments will only galvanize their members. Is this a decisive moment for the protests—and what chance do they ultimately have of succeeding?
Research on another “tent” movement—the 1990 Israeli housing protests—suggests that evaluating protest movements requires making one crucial distinction: between legitimizing an issue and legitimizing demands. David Dery, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noted that the Israeli protests were “strong enough to put the housing problem on the national agenda, and to keep it there for a few months,” but they faltered when confronted with the task of conceptualizing the issue and a specific solution for it. Thus, Dery wrote, the protests ultimately had “no influence on the subsequent treatment” of the problem. Likening democratic participation to a relay race, Dery argued that protesters are well-suited for the first leg—bringing public attention to an issue. At that early stage governments are “vulnerable,” particularly if protesters can “attract a broad coalition of dissatisfied citizens.” But the next stage of the relay requires more specificity and a plan of action, a task for which broad, diverse groups of protesters are “normally ill-equipped.” It’s too early to know whether this will happen to Occupy Wall Street, but Dery argued at the time that his distinction between attention and action could shed light on the dynamics of many protest movements. So far, Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in turning national attention to income inequality and the disproportionate power of the financial sector—but now that they’ve lost their encampment, is their momentum at risk as well?