Occupy Wall Street: Six Months In, Strength in (Small) Numbers

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REUTERS/Mike Segar

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators protest Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney outside the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City

From the very beginning, Occupy Wall Street’s power was never in its numbers. That’s still true. Six months in, the movement that helped change the political conversation is still going at it.

As popular movements go, the Occupy phenomenon, in New York City, at least, has always had a pretty paltry turnout. When I went down to Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, 2011, to chronicle the movement’s birth, more than 3,000 people were on hand to protest. Granted, that’s a good number of people, especially in the tight canyons of lower Manhattan. But when I counted backpacks and sleeping bags, I came up with about 250. Sure enough, for the next eight weeks, until police raided the Zuccotti Park encampment just before the movement’s two-month anniversary, between 200 and 300 people slept in the park, “occupying” it 24 hours a day.

When the weather was nice last fall, as many as 2,000 people protested from Zuccotti Park on any given day. Marches, especially those with the support of large labor unions, and the “days of action” drew an estimated 15,000 people to New York City’s streets. It was enough to snarl traffic, cause clashes in much of Times Square and cost the city $17 million in police overtime, according to NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly.

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As large as those numbers seem, they pale in comparison with last year’s Arab Spring protests, which routinely drew tens of thousands, many times hundreds of thousands, of people to the streets for weeks on end. (Though, to be clear, the stakes were certainly higher for Arab Spring protesters.) Even in the U.S., the Occupy movement lost badly in a “shoes on the ground” comparison with many other protests. The March for Life, in which abortion opponents gather annually in Washington to protest the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, draws between 100,000 and 400,000 people each year, depending on estimates. For the sake of argument, go with the lower number — that protest is roughly 10 times the size of the largest Occupy rally or march.

But the in-person turnout numbers minimize Occupy’s reach. As of today, Occupy’s two main Twitter feeds have a combined 250,000 followers. Because many of the movement’s camps in cities across the U.S. have been disbanded by local police, it’s hard to estimate a total following, but so far Occupy has inspired at least one congressional candidate, a super PAC and camps across the nation that have been awaiting spring to take to the streets once again. By using social media, Occupy has linked its movement to others around the world, showing solidarity while others have supported its efforts.

Occupy was back in the news this weekend as hundreds took to the streets to mark the movement’s six-month anniversary. Amid the St. Patrick’s Day revelry and parade up Fifth Avenue, the marches didn’t have much of an impact across New York City. A reported 73 were arrested Saturday night, some violently, according to witnesses, as police cleared the park of about 300 assembled protesters after midnight.

Regardless of the number who took to the streets to mark Occupy’s half-year birthday, the movement has proved it has staying power. With plans for larger rallies in April and May and protests at both major party conventions in late August and early September, we certainly haven’t heard the last of its message. With the official start of spring only a week away, we’ll be watching to see how that message may have evolved over the winter.

VIDEO: The Media Messenger of Zuccotti Park

Nate Rawlings is a writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @naterawlings. Continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMENewsFeed.

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