Why the Occupy Las Vegas movement is fading—and how it can make itself relevant again

So the Occupy Las Vegas protesters are well-behaved. Good for them. In addition to a gold star and a few extra minutes of recess, their behavior earned them a small, painfully balanced story from the Associated Press, which set the meme local TV and radio have faithfully followed: While other cities are plagued with civil disobedience, it’s all quiet on the Paradise Road front. Subtext: Feel free to go about your lives, Las Vegans, because Occupy Las Vegas is a meaningless curiosity.

Wait, they did sit in the street Nov. 17 for a few minutes to demonstrate their antipathy toward … people driving on Las Vegas Boulevard? I’m not sure. Twenty-one of them got arrested, a news helicopter buzzed overhead and for a few minutes it all looked very Oaklandish. That outrageous behavior earned them a scolding from Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who was apparently under the impression that Occupy Las Vegas was going to be 100 percent docile.

If you sense disappointment and sarcasm in the preceding two paragraphs, thank you for being an astute reader. The truth is that while I’m fully behind the ideals driving Occupy nationally, I’m low on sympathy for Occupy Las Vegas and their petty bickering, lack of focus and inability to get a coherent message across. As a colleague recently wondered aloud, “At what point is this just urban camping?”

I’d say about three weeks ago.

Occupy Wall Street was born as street theater. And contrary to another prevalent meme, it does have demands and goals. I’m paraphrasing here because there is no official Occupy PR agency to tidy up the message, but they are: 1) corporations should not have the same rights as citizens; 2) the banking and mortgage industries that created the housing bubble and brought the economy to its knees must be regulated; 3) the rich should pay more in taxes; 4) money should have less influence in politics.

Nationally, Occupy grew up quickly, perhaps hastened by the onset of winter and getting kicked out of Zuccotti Park in New York, and is maturing into an creative, worldwide movement. The clashes still get all the press—riots in Oakland and the pepper-spraying cops at UC Davis—but it’s the actions you don’t hear about that demonstrate the guts and ingenuity of Occupy. When Occupy Cal was told they could no longer camp on the ground at UC Berkeley, they attached balloons to their tents and floated them in the air. In Brooklyn, protesters were treated to the sight of the 99 percent “bat signal,” a series of messages projected on the Verizon building. In Atlanta and Cleveland, Occupiers pitched their tents in front of houses about to be foreclosed on. Those were innovative, eye-catching ways to get the message across that the status quo is broken. And none of them happened here.

In Las Vegas, a city with a built-in global audience, we get an asphalt parking lot safely away from the Strip with a few cardboard signs stuck in the fence. The city that entertains the world and knows how to create alternate realities and spin like no other has an Occupy movement worthy of Poughkeepsie. We market ourselves as a place to misbehave, yet our Occupiers make national news for playing nice. The fact that we’ve been hit harder by the very things that Occupiers the world over are shouting about only adds insult to injury. Some 70 percent of all our homes are underwater, unemployment is 13 percent, we are cutting education funding and growth has stalled, yet our grassroots movement whose mission is to call attention to these issues nearly fell apart from internal squabbling over who was allowed to speak at the general assembly.

Speaking of which, I was as surprised as anyone to learn that the county granted Occupy Las Vegas a 90-day extension to its lease for Area 99, their lot between Paradise Road and Swenson Street north of Tropicana Avenue. The last time I visited, right after the group split Nov. 9, there were about six activists living on the site and two or three times as many homeless people. At the time I predicted the end of Area 99, which I think might have forced Occupy Las Vegas to grow up. Moving indoors, or even existing virtually, would have allowed the group to plan and plot without the eyesore of Area 99 standing as visual shorthand for their ineffectiveness. They could have popped up anywhere around the city, a shadowy social justice strike force whose next move no one could predict. Alternatively, they could have gathered at some pre-determined spot every week, dispensing with the logistical nightmare of maintaining a camp and plowing their resources into the message. Instead we get three more months of Hooverville. Occupy Las Vegas, please understand. This is a letter of tough love. Do something—nondestructive and legal, please—to show that you’re a vital, efficient force to be reckoned with. You’ve got one of the world’s best canvases and a media corps that loves spectacle, even if they don’t quite get what you’re all about. Start painting.