With images of mass demonstrations and police brutality gripping the world, the Occupy Wall Street movement marked its three-month anniversary on Dec. 17. Skeptics have questioned the movement’s momentum since its beginning and have claimed it wouldn’t last long enough to deliver any significant message. But protesters around the nation are feeling stronger and more united than ever, attracting more participants and expanding their confrontations with corporate greed and influence.
“This movement has been built on the need of the working class and the middle class,” New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodríguez told marchers during a daylong protest in Lower Manhattan. “This movement is not going anywhere, is not leaving this city, unless we take particular initiatives to close the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent."
While police have dispersed most major Occupy encampments around the country, protesters from New York to California continue defying the authorities and challenging the mass evictions and arrests. They’re demanding their basic constitutional rights to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly through the courts. And in Iowa, they are organizing occupations of presidential campaign headquarters as the Iowa caucuses approach.
More than 50 anti-Wall Street protesters were arrested in New York on Dec. 18 after trying to scale a fence around a vacant Trinity Church parking lot to establish a new encampment. Before the arrests, protesters gathered in Duarte Square across the street from the lot to mark the anniversary and to demand use of the parking lot.
"We're just trying to say that this country has gone in the wrong direction, and we need spaces that we can control and we can decide our future in, and that's what this is about." - Occuply Wall Street protester David Suker
“We're just trying to say that this country has gone in the wrong direction, and we need spaces that we can control and we can decide our future in, and that's what this is about," said David Suker, who was among those who scaled the fence, according to NBC New York.
Several Occupy Albany protesters were pepper sprayed by a police officer on horseback during an altercation when police took the last tent away from their dismantled encampment on Dec. 22, according to the Associated Press. About 20 protesters carried the tent through downtown streets while chanting along with 50 other protesters, “For every eviction, another occupation!”
Upon returning to the park, the protesters held an assembly. When the police came back from City Hall, they grabbed the tent and began a tug-of-war, which they eventually won after pepper spraying at least five protesters, one of whom had to be taken away by ambulance.
Albany Police Department Det. James Miller claimed in a statement that the protesters were pepper-sprayed because they exhibited aggressive behavior toward officers, with two sustaining minor injuries.
“The actions taken today were based on a court order and were appropriate," he said in a Dec. 23 CBS News article. "The order does not preclude anyone from continuing to protest in the park at any time, and the city will continue to respect Occupy Albany's right to free speech."
U.S. District Attorney P. David Soares has refused to take legal action against the peaceful protesters who were charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing.
In response to officials violating protesters’ First Amendment rights to assemble and peacefully express their demands to the government, protesters are turning to the courts in states across the country.
"For every eviction, another occupation!" - Occupy Albany chant
In California, The National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued the Oakland Police Department in federal court in November, according to the Associated Press. They alleged First and Fourth Amendment violations by police who denied them their rights to assemble and demonstrate and used excessive force — including "flash-bang."
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan announced on Dec. 14 an investigation into the police response.
In New York, the state's Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman identified a connection between excessive police force used against Occupy demonstrators again similar incidents during the last presidential election.
“I think what's been happening with Occupy is so reminiscent of what happened during the Republican National Convention in 2008,” she said in a Dec. 17 Associated Press article. "When people get together to engage in that most American of pastimes – protest – it almost always generates a defensive and repressive response from law enforcement. Occupy is no exception.”
Some Occupy Des Moines protesters are organizing a “People’s Caucus” on Dec. 27 where participants will split into groups to determine which candidate’s office they will attempt to occupy, according to Mother Jones.
“We're holding the first-in-the-nation caucus now, not the political parties,” organizer Olivia Sandbothe said in the story.
However, Des Moines activists and Occupy Iowa Caucus organizers have stated that they will not protest at caucuses or disrupt voting, as noted on the local Occupy Des Moines website. The organizers will occupying presidential campaign headquarters and other political events throughout the state without targeting voters.
"We're holding the first-in-the-nation caucus now, not the political parties." - Occupy Des Moines protester Olivia Sandbothe
Activists aligned with Occupy Des Moines also disrupted a speech by Newt Gingrich at a Dec. 21 statehouse news conference announcing two key endorsements for his presidential run. The protesters were taken into the hallway as they chanted, “Put people first!”
One of the few remaining major Occupy encampments, Occupy DC, has not faced official eviction threats from the local law enforcement, and the camp’s ranks are also growing, as former occupiers from other cities travel to DC to join the effort, according to Examiner.com blogger Reginald Johnson.
However, with protesters streaming into the district from other evicted encampments, tension is also growing. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said he would seek an estimated $1.6 million reimbursement from the federal government for maintenance and policing costs.
Both the McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza Occupy encampments have vowed to stay. And organizers say Washington will become a major focus for the movement.
“I do think more and more people recognize this is where money and power come together,” said Kevin Zeese, an organizer of the Freedom Plaza protest, in a Washington Post article. “People will get that more and more, Washington is the center of action.”
Diana Petrova can be reached at .