Occupy Wall Street: They're Back, But Does Anyone Care?

After spending 2011 near the top of the news headlines, Occupy Wall Street finds itself in a struggle to regain relevance as a grassroots protest against corporate greed and Washington corruption.

Katie, a college graduate, blows bubbles during an Occupy Wall Street rally against the high cost of college tuitions on April 25, 2012 in New York.
Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images
Katie, a college graduate, blows bubbles during an Occupy Wall Street rally against the high cost of college tuitions on April 25, 2012 in New York.

The movement hopes to regain some of its mojo Tuesday, when it stages a nationwide May Day protest and celebration that will focus on a broad agenda of causes it hopes to push.

But with neither presidential candidatepaying much attention to the OWS faction and the bloody protests in Europe seemingly quelled for the time being, this is a pivotal moment for the Occupy movement either to regain its footing, or risk being dismissed as a non-factor in the national dialogue.

"They lost relevance a little bit. A lot of people felt like it wasn't going anywhere," says filmmaker Emil Chiaberi, who wrote, produced and directed "Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal," a documentary that explores the motivations — and extremes — of protest movements that predated Occupy Wall Street or its conservative twin, the tea party.

"This whole idea of let's just protest the corporate greed — yeah, but what are you trying to accomplish?" Chiaberi adds. "How are you going to affect change?"

Primarily, the group hopes to get noticed again simply by getting busy.

Though Occupiers have held small demonstrations this Spring around the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday's May Day effort marks the year's first coordinated nationwide event. The event is being billed as a global general strike against work and school and most other activities promoting commerce.

In New York, events include a kickoff at 8 am in Bryant Park of a "Pop-Up Occupation," followed by a Free University in Madison Square Park at 10 am. At 2 pm, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello leads a march from Bryant Park to Union Square.

Later in the day, there will be a Solidarity Rally in Union Square at 4, followed at 5:30 pm by another march "into the heart of corporate corruption on Wall Street," according to the maydaynyc.org Web site.

Similar events last year drew heavy media coverage but not always huge crowds. Weekend gatherings tended to be more raucous and well-attended, while weekday protests, such as the Upper East Side marchin front of several Wall Street kingpins' homes, attracted noisy but relatively small crowds.

Late Monday, two Wells Fargo branches received suspicious packages that were thought to be Occupy Wall Street related. The bank said no one was injured and police were on location.

Occupiers often complained about how the mainstream media covered their protests, focusing more on arrests and uproar than the actual message being conveyed.

A group of alternative media outlets has bonded this year to make sure the OWS message is heard without distortion.

"We were worried that corporate media tends to focus on arrests, on police action, on violence, because it makes really great TV," says Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, a spokeswoman for "Media for the 99 Percent," a group that has coined a popular OWS motto to demonstrate the type of coverage it plans. OWS claims it represents the 99 percent of Americans not in the ruling class.

"We will be tracking arrests, but our interest is really in understanding why these protests are happening now and what they're trying to accomplish," she says. "When you have hundreds of people, maybe thousands of people, who are volunteering their own time to be a part of a protest movement, who are willing to camp outside, who are willing to attend mind-numbing General Assemblies, for hours on end — we want to understand why people are doing that."

The media group entails indie outlets like Yes! Magazine and AlterNet, as well as more recognizable names like The Nation and Mother Jones.

Kaiser said the outlets are undeterred by the notion that adopting the "99 Percent" moniker might betray a bias of their own.

"The difference isn't that we're taking a side, the difference is we can offer more perceptive coverage because we are more interested in the context," she said. "The one place where we are very sympathetic with Occupy is, honestly, we feel that we're fighting a battle against corporate media."

OWS also will face some other constraints with which it is well familiar — the New York Stock Exchange is planning stepped-up security, while the city police department also is prepared to make sure the protesters don't get out of hand.

More than that, though, the movement confronts the challenge of making sure its message doesn't get lost. While the OWS message that Wall Street has damaged the national economy through reckless greed certainly garners sympathy, OWS often is faulted for offering little alternative.

"No one even thinks about asking the question as to why every country in the world protects its banking system," banking analyst Dick Bove of Rochdale Securities said. "The answer, of course, is because the banking system holds the key to the health of middle to small business and the people they employ."

May Day, then, provides both an opportunity and a challenge for OWS to show it still matters.

"Even if the movement itself is losing relevance, what's relevant are the feelings, emotions and concepts that brought those people together in the first place," says Chiaberi, the filmmaker. "If Occupy Wall Street dissipates or loses relevance, something else inevitably will appear in its stead. I hope it will morph into something more organized."

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