Occupy Wall Street: From Zuccotti Tents to Political Primaries

With the drum circles mostly gone, the Occupy movement is trying new tactics — and aiming straight at election season.

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Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

A protester affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement shouts slogans while a small group marches from Grand Central Station to Times Square after a protest in New York on January 3, 2012.

While tens of thousands of people rang in the New Year with the famous ball drop in Times Square, a few miles to the south, members of Occupy Wall Street ended the year of the protester where the movement took off.

After marches through downtown Manhattan, which included a dizzying run through Chinatown, protesters returned to Zuccotti Park. They first occupied the space on Sept. 17, and it served as their main encampment and symbolic home until police evicted them on Nov. 15. On New Year’s, they tore down barricades erected around the park and piled them in the middle. After scuffles with police, more than 60 people were arrested.

(VIDEO: The Media Messenger of Zuccotti Park)

Three days later, protesters assembled a “flash mob” at Grand Central Station during rush hour to protest President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which contained controversial provisions like the potential indefinite detention of terrorism suspects. Protesters demonstrated “black bagging”–simulating scenes from the Abu Gharaib detainee abuse–to draw attention to the detainments the defense act authorizes.

Welcome to Occupy 2.0. Without a single space to use as a platform, protesters have been taking their message throughout the city. As a protest tactic, occupation was highly successful last year, helping to change the national conversation from debt cutting and tax reduction to inequalities of income and opportunity. Every clash with law enforcement–from the arrest of 700 marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge to the stare down over eviction to the final raid on the park–brought more media attention and more allies to planned marches.

(MORE: Occupy Wall Street: A Leaderless Movement Plots a Comeback)

Swing by Zuccotti Park on a weekday evening these days and the concrete space, now surrounded by hundreds of metal barricades, lays empty. About a dozen private security guards in bright vests roam the perimeter. Occupiers still use the park for their general assembly meetings, but no one can sleep there anymore. Instead, out of town protesters who chose to stay in New York have shacked up with friends or established commune-style co-ops.

Most of the movement’s planning takes place in an atrium lobby at 60 Wall Street, the U.S. headquarters of Deutsche Bank that’s just a few short blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. Even in Zuccotti Park’s heyday, Occupy’s working groups met inside the building, away from the crowds and cameras and police, to discuss their myriad moving pieces.

(MORE: Person of the Year 2011: The Protester)

This Thursday night, different working groups discussed housing, finances and messaging in clusters of a few dozen people. A single NYPD sergeant strolled up and down the center of the atrium. Given the stack of empty pizza boxes, it looked like a college seminar meeting off campus, but the discussion centered on how to maintain the movement’s presence in the city while continuing to spread its message in the new year.

“I think you’re going to see a variety of tactics used this year,” says Guy Steward, who has been part of the movement since before the Zuccotti Park occupation and was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. On Jan. 17, Occupy is planning a march in solidarity with protesters in Lagos, Nigeria, where marches over fuel price hikes turned violent this week, and an Occupy Congress march in Washington. They are making long-term plans for a large multi-city protest on May 1, which could serve as a warmup for demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in early September.

But protesters aren’t waiting for the big national conventions to try and influence the conversation of the political races. In Iowa, while much of the attention was focused on Republican candidates, protesters focused their fire on Democrats, calling out Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee while dozens of occupiers lay scattered about a hotel lobby, as if they were dead, with dollar bills covering their mouths. The action was enough to make national T.V., where Wasserman Schultz affirmed her support of the movement, even as she refused to meet with the protesters.

Regardless of tactics, the goal is to perpetuate a conversation that began last fall and should continue into the new year. “The idea is that you want to start to have the conversation,” says Henry James Ferry, founder and editor in chief of The Other 99%, which produces media for the Occupy movement.” It’s not going to fit on a bumper sticker and it’s not a sound bite. Real facts emerge; real solutions arise out of it. That’s the only way the country moves forward.”

VIDEO: Sights and Sounds from the Wall Street Protests

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