Over the last two months, Occupy Wall Street spread across the nation as each new economic statistic grimly confirms the disparity between rich and poor continuing to grow while unemployment remains high and stagnant. The protesters were initially mocked and denigrated, but public outcry galvanized by pepper spray and mass arrest police tactics added to the persistence and popularity of the movement.
The response from local governments has varied from city to city. In New York it was marked by heavy-handedness tempered with reluctant tolerance. This week, there was a conference call of city governments across the country to coordinate a crackdown. For the protesters, this drives home one of their key points, that the structure of political and economic power has become too tone-deaf and disconnected from realities on the street.
On Monday night, the heavy hand reasserted itself with force in Lower Manhattan. The police evicted the demonstrators in the middle of the night without warning, arrested several hundred of them, and denied journalists access to witness the operation. Mayor Bloomberg cited safety and sanitation as justification—legitimate concerns, to be sure, as the encampment attracted some crime and complaints of noise—but the timing and manner of his decision in the face of a court order left little doubt that respect for civil liberties took a back seat to reasserting the status quo.
The courts then supported Bloomberg after the fact, permitting 24-hour access to Zuccotti Park but not sleeping bags or tents, effectively ending the original protest for the moment. Crowds gathered the next day in different locations to continue demonstrating.
The number of people actually sleeping at any given moment were never large, perhaps several hundred; but tens of thousands passed through over sixty days. Some were unlikely allies, like establishment politicians and culturally disparate labor union workers, others came to gawk, some to disagree and debate. Especially as the weather got colder, spirits had been flagging as activists debated what to do next.
By evicting the protesters in such a contentious manner, the mayor and the police may have inadvertently rejuvenated the movement. Whether that turns out to be the case or not, the protest succeeded in changing the national conversation: There is now a clear populist alternative to the Tea Party.
This post originally appeared at FacingChange.org.