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Can an Occupation Movement Survive if it No Longer Occupies a Space? Lessons from Across the Land

Protesters around the country have been cleared out of their occupied public spaces, but some of the smaller occupations could hold lessons for next steps.

This story originally appeared at Salon.

The post-occupation movement is taking shape across America. In New York, Occupy Wall Street is mulling next steps now that Zuccotti Park has been politically cleansed.  Oakland, Calif., and  Portland, Ore., have been evicted. And other  occupations are staring at imminent police action, including New Orleans, Detroit and  Philadelphia.

In Chicago, which has been unable to secure a public space, the Occupy movement is trying to figure out how to sustain a public presence through a harsh winter while staging creative actions that capture attention. And while Occupy Mobile in the conservative stronghold of Alabama was shut down two weeks ago without much attention from the national news media, the local movement has not gone quietly into the night, providing one answer to the question: Can an occupation movement survive if it no longer occupies a space?

The answer, based on my visits to occupation sites around the country, is:  “Yes, but …”

Mobilized in Mobile

In Mobile,  a group of young, mostly white activists initiated one of the country’s shortest occupations recently. After holding weekly demonstrations for a month, Occupy Mobile set up an encampment in the city’s downtown Spanish Plaza on Nov. 5. After voluntarily moving to nearby Memorial Park days later the occupation was broken up close to midnight on Nov. 8 with  police arresting 15 people and protesters alleging police brutality.

We arrived in Mobile on a Saturday night after enjoying a grilled shrimp dinner at Ed’s Seafood Shed and an outrageously beautiful fuchsia sunset over the Gulf Coast. Chelsy Wilson, a university student studying anthropology, had invited us to a modest home secreted in the suburbs to meet members of Occupy Mobile. We were curious about an occupation that had taken root in a small city in the Deep South, and when we talked with some of the 20 members they seemed just as surprised, describing a conservative city hostile to most anyone to the left of Michele Bachmann.

Jason Carey, a 28-year-old IT specialist who’s lived in Mobile for 10 years, said an emergency room doctor told him his ribs may have been fractured when he was arrested the final night of Occupy Mobile’s encampment. He claims he was dragged down stairs and felt “someone stomping on me.” A good-looking nerdy type and aficionado of extreme sports, Carey is the seasoned activist and mentor to political neophytes in the organization.

Three days after being evicted Occupy Mobile was back on the streets. It staged an action at ArtWalk, a monthly event in downtown where galleries open their doors and artists peddle their work on the streets.

“About 15 people did a silent protest,” says Carey. “Some people had dollar bills taped over their mouths. I taped a sign over my mouth, ‘First Amendment? Not in Mobile!’ There are well over a thousand people walking around at any time.” Carey says that people usually come to ArtWalk in groups and while “a few people were assholes … dozens of groups initiated discussions with us.”

Emily Schuler, a Mobile native and college student, says the Occupy movement made her rethink her place in society, calling it “one of the best things that has ever happened to me.” Schuler says, “I love Mobile, but it’s ultra-conservative.” She explains, “I always felt like the black sheep because I sensed that the way the world was working was not good … There is a lot of pain and suffering. I think it has a lot to do with the way the system works.  Because right now it’s profit over people. And it should be people over profit.”