Occupy Wall Street is intent on surviving the winter months, the stubborn encampments sprinkled throughout America having become a symbol of the constant need to push back against the powerful corporations dominating a broken politics in Washington.
But social movements in the United States have rarely expressed themselves in sustained public occupations quite like this, which makes the next few months critical — and tough to predict.
“Political encampments are not so common,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University and leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. “The master stroke was in conceiving that the occupation, without any clear trajectory, was a big symbolic phenomenon. A kind of homesteading.”
Logistical preparations have been ongoing for weeks, and are ramping up now that the season’s first snow has blanketed the Northeast. In some cases, activists are finding local law enforcement and public workers happy to lend a hand.
“Folks here and in Iowa City are digging in for the winter,” said David Goodner, a community organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and a regular at the Occupy Des Moines protest. “More specifically, what that means is in Des Moines we’ve purchased three all-purpose all-weather fire retardant tents that meet the city’s fire and building codes. We have a very close relationship with the Des Moines Fire Department; they’re providing a lot of technical advice and assistance.”
In other instances, activists, focused on maintaining their camps day-to-day and avoiding police trouble, had failed to do much winter planning until outside groups like Firedoglake stepped in to encourage preparation.
“I don’t think they were really thinking that far ahead, they were just fighting the battles everyday, with police kicking them out here and there,” said Brian Sonenstein, director of digital strategy for Firedoglake (FDL). “That was pretty alarming because we realized the infrastructure wasn’t there in the first place [for winter],”
FDL’s founder, Jane Hamsher, indicated the organization has already spent around $43,000 helping prepare the various “Occupy” camps for the cold by supplying thick socks, coats, and blankets, and that it costs about $70 to pay for union-made winter clothing to cover an activist head-to-toe. Donations will prove vital, because even when activists are cognizant of the threat posed by winter, many lack the means to do anything about it.
“Even if you are planning, the fact of the matter is, let’s not forget that a lot of the people out there protesting in these Obama versions of Hoovervilles are unemployed, disabled, veterans, people who might not be able to afford to buy all this gear to get through winter,” added Sonenstein. “You can have all these people very dedicated to staying, ready to deal with winter, but who otherwise don’t have supplies.”
Surviving the winter would once again point to the organizational acumen of a cadre of activists that often get the “anarchist” label shoved upon them by detractors. And to make it through to March would mean these are some of the most enduring social protests since the 1960s, as the last major public protest wave — to try to prevent the Iraq War — fizzed out in large part once the conflict began.
“It’s turned out that the act itself, being in the physical place, has a good deal of meaning to a significant number of people, and that has led to a proliferation of occupations,” said Gitlin. “And having the place also turns out to be an attraction for media. To be able to find a movement and relate to it one way or the other [has been helpful].”
He also argued that what was once a seemingly trivial matter — where and at what times occupations were held — is now a question of principle that cannot be overestimated.
“Whatever people felt at the beginning about how long they’re going to go through with this, it’s now incumbent upon them to continue something, if for no other reason than that abandoning the encampment would be interpreted as a defeat by media. That’s how they do things. It’s like armies. They’re either advancing or retreating.”
Indeed, one can easily imagine mainstream news organizations writing off the cause if the first snow were to upend the protests. Having passed the initial test, “Occupy” now has to show it can galvanize support by defying the elements — which may be an even more titanic struggle than standing tall against police officers.
“If we can figure out a way to survive the winter in Iowa, there’s no question the movement will be able to do it all around the country,” said Goodner. “If we can do it in Iowa, we can do it anywhere.”