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Occupying Society: How the Movement Hashes Out Race, Class and Privilege in Real Time

When encampments are shut down, it's not just the physical turf that's lost; a social experiment in working out the issues that have divided people for centuries gets crimped.

Since Occupy Wall Street lost its stronghold in Manhattan's financial district last week, thanks to a long-threatened raid by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, discussion swirls about the fate of the movement -- especially in light of similar evictions of Occupy encampments in other cities.

But the loss of encampment space is about more than the movement's physical presence; it threatens the loss of the most compelling story, a hybrid of breaking news and reality TV show. This couldn't have been dreamed up by MTV, but the premise feels familiar: An organic, ad hoc society springs from encampment village, hashing out in real time tensions around class, race and competing priorities that have gripped the progressive movement for decades -- essentially the early seasons of "The Real World" for change agents and social activists. (The comparison wasn't lost on MTV producers, who created a special called  True Life: I'm Occupying Wall Street, which aired earlier this month.)

Occasionally, the competing priorities of the movements made headlines, but the stories aired and published usually focused on tensions that arise when resistance to the state meets the need for police authority, as evidenced in ongoing battles over dealing with sexual assault in some encampments. Matters of diversity, homelessness and conversational direction draw less attention from media, but are fiercely debated in the Occupy communities -- and those conversations are instructive in the quest to create a new type of society.

Busting a Stereotype

Back in October, responding to Bloomberg's first threat of eviction to the OWS camp, I found myself prepping to head down to Manhattan's Zuccotti Park at dawn. (Bloomberg said that the park needed to be cleaned.) The night before, I had gotten lost and ended up on Wall Street, gawking at the police brigades, barriers and officers on horses. I wasn't planning on getting caught in any kind of sweep (and I wasn't, though there is a disturbing pattern of journalists being arrested covering OWS protests), but as a life-long resident of Washington, DC, I know protests can go from peaceful to nuclear in seconds.

So, I took to Twitter, asking folks who had been down to Zuccotti to help me decide between a business-casual hybrid outfit (sneakers, professional dress) or the I-may-end-up-incarcerated gear of sneakers, jeans and multiple layers.

Overwhelmingly, the answer was business. One person tweeted, "We're already smeared in the media as a bunch of smelly hippies, break up the stereotype."

Another stereotype went hand in hand with the "smelly hippies" smear: hand-wringing over the numbers of homeless people coexisting with the occupiers. Media coverage began focusing on tensions within the Occupy movement over the growing number of homeless people who found shelter, food and companionship within the camps.

Through the space that Occupy provided, the conditions under which the homeless in America live under each day were illuminated. The rough camps attracted enough people carrying their possessions on their backs that, back in DC, I soon found myself playing the "Homeless or Occupier" game in my head, as I observed the people wandering Farragut Square, near the Occupy K Street encampment, around lunchtime. While this blended reality could be chalked up to a silly quirk, the fact that the well-run camps (which managed to provide a steady supply of food and relative safety on a skimpy budget) soon became a beacon for people in distress, pointed a damning finger at the failure of our society to care for all its members.

Tensions increased when the New York Times interviewed a young activist named Hero Vincent in Zuccotti Park, who said in exasperation, "It's bad for most of us who came here to build a movement. We didn't come here to start a recovery institution."

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