After the vote to leave Burnside on December 21, I ask Paul what comes next and he talks of occupying politicians' offices or storming a Starbucks to stage a radical art show; in short, more of the spectacle that caught the public eye this fall.
Indeed, for local Occupyers, getting the public's attention and shifting the conversation appears an end in and of itself — the closest thing the movement has to a raison d'être. And moving beyond that conversation, into more conventional political organizing, seems a remote possibility, at best.
Most of the Occupyers I interviewed believe our politics is fundamentally broken. Almost useless. And Democrats, they argue, are no better than Republicans. "We have two political parties," Paul says. "That's one more than Nazi Germany."
This is not a man who will be knocking on doors for General Assembly candidates.
Politics, of course, is not just about elections. It is about building coalitions around issues and applying pressure. And Occupy Providence has done some of that — teaming up with anti-homelessness activists December 10, for instance, to march on the State House and stage a one-night encampment on the lawn.
The effort yielded some fruit. For now, at least, Occupyers at the head of an anti-homelessness march mean more media attention than usual. "We're very interested in communications and media relations and they are hot right now," says Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
But many in Occupy share a deep distrust, not just of elected officials, but of the establishment left: unions, foundations, and non-profits. "My personal belief," says Michael McCarthy, 29, a veteran of the Afghanistan War who has become an unofficial spokesman for Occupy Providence, "is the non-profit world has kind of codified what it means to be an activist. They have board meetings, and 'when are we going to have an action' . . . and that has really slow-played a political movement in this country for quite awhile."
McCarthy, who had never been an activist before this fall, says he saw an opening for something different when he visited Zuccotti Park in the early days of Occupy Wall Street, encountering a joyous protest of blue body paint and hula hoops. Within hours, he was in the thick of a high-profile Brooklyn Bridge march that ended with more than 700 arrests. "I was just like, 'This is what I've been waiting for,'" he says. " 'I can take action, I don't have to fill out a grant proposal.' "
It is, of course, the spontaneity and independence of the movement that lends it so much of its exuberant power; Occupyers will remain committed past the winter in no small measure, McCarthy argues, because they are having so much fun.
But if they shun electoral politics and keep potential allies at a distance, can they be effective?
'WHO'S GOT THE POWER?'
Robert Self, a history professor at Brown University who specializes in American history and political and social movements, is skeptical.
"I think there's a central and deep irony here," he says, "which is that the right, at this moment in American history . . . doesn't believe in government. But it's very good at politics. And the left — which actually believes in government, believes in the state, believes in social democracy — is very bad at politics.