New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his counterparts in several other cities may have done the protesters of the "Occupy" movement the biggest possible favor by kicking them out of the parks where they have erected tent cities for the last several weeks. Many protesters in New York; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore. and other cities where the encampments have been dispersed are vowing to keep their round-the-clock protest going despite police orders, but that would be a mistake. They should take this opportunity to start a new, more pointed phase of their movement.
Polls show large majorities of Americans agree with the protesters' complaints that income inequality has grown to dangerous levels in this country and that corporations and Wall Street have grown too powerful and hold too much sway over our elected leaders. But the problem is that the only clearly articulated and fervently pursued goal of the occupiers is the right to camp in public, and that their most organized efforts have gone into securing tents, warm socks and peanut butter, not social and economic justice.
Baltimore has its own "Occupy" protest at McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor, and it has, fortunately, not seen the kind of problems that have led mayors in other cities to clear the encampments. There have not been reports of violence, and the protest there is not so large as the recently dispersed encampment in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, which fostered unsanitary conditions.
Still, Baltimore officials have experienced the same frustration in dealing with the protesters as Mayor Bloomberg's office reportedly did. The movement is so rigidly un-hierarchical that it refuses to acknowledge that anyone could negotiate the terms of its encampment on its behalf. That has led to a frustration on the part of officials here and elsewhere who are sympathetic to the protesters' message but at a loss for how to accommodate them in an orderly way, and it has meant that a great deal of the protesters' time and energy has gone into advocating for a right to 24/7 occupation of public parks and squares, as opposed to restoring a level playing field for Americans.
It's time for the "Occupy" protests to grow up. Even the Canadian magazine Adbusters, which helped spark the movement, has suggested that the protesters consider changing gears and "use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad projects ready to rumble next spring." What that means is that the movement needs to start rallying around specific remedies to the problems it has identified, and it needs to directly engage in the political process.
Perhaps it could fight for a restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, which prevented banks from also acting as investment houses and insurance companies but was partially repealed during the Clinton administration. It could advocate for the so-called "Buffett rule," which would eliminate a loophole that allows those whose income is primarily derived from investment gains (like its namesake, Warren Buffett) to be taxed at far lower rates than middle-income Americans. It could push for the end of tax breaks for oil companies. It could fight against the reauthorization of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, or for stricter campaign finance disclosure to mitigate the corrosive impact of the influx of corporate money into politics that was facilitated by the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision.
But whatever the direction the protest takes, it needs to prove that it's something more than a toddler sitting on the floor in a sulk because it doesn't want to go to bed. Occupy protesters, you have our attention. Now do something with it.