The overnight clearing of Zuccotti Park by the police, following similar actions by police in Denver, Portland, Oakland and Atlanta, brings to a close one phase of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some will reproach the movement for not fighting back harder against the police. (To their credit, a minority adopted “guerilla” tactics, running through the streets dodging cops.)
That reproach is beside the point. When the police hesitate, militant resistance may sway them; that is what happened in Portland, Oakland and earlier in New York. But no unarmed crowd in a public park is a match for organized and trained police who are determined to do their duty. The only hope is to reach out to new forces.
Resisting police violence with violence may accomplish that: in 1968 the sight of students in Paris battling police sparked a general strike. With the partial exception of Oakland, no such development occurred here.
There may be times when it is necessary to fight even when defeat is certain: Trotsky, for example, denounced the Communist Party policy of advocating retreat in the face of Hitler, declaring that ten unsuccessful proletarian insurrections one after another would be less demoralizing to the German working class than allowing Hitler to take power peacefully. But the clearing of the parks does not mean the triumph of Hitler: the ruling class is still operating with its traditional instruments of carrot, club and cry of alarm, a blend of repression and concession. The people who took the initiative in this movement are still at liberty, free to try again.
OWS is the biggest upsurge in the U.S. since the 1960s. It drew in people with no history of political activity, and tested both them and the more experienced. It won near universal admiration even from people who were not ready to join it. In its conscious self-identification with movements in other countries, especially in the Arab world, it delivered a blow to American provincialism (and, by implication, to Zionism). Its refusal to define itself by what are sometimes called “reasonable” demands—a refusal that drove old-style reformists crazy—may turn out to be its most enduring legacy.
Phase one has ended. Phase two will pose new tasks.