Occupy Wall Street: “You Can’t Evict An Idea Whose Time Has Come”
The encampments of the “99%” at New York and numerous other locations savagely demolished, the confrontation between the progressive power of people on the move and the reactionary sway of the combined economic, political and propaganda apparatuses of the financial oligarchy in America has entered upon a grand new stage with a great new slogan we are using as a caption for this write-up. When a government known for frequently issuing hypocritical statements about violations of democratic rights in other countries launches a nationwide violent crackdown on peaceful protesters at home – whose concerns even the President acknowledged as justified – naturally it finds itself more isolated and beleaguered than ever. The empire confronts a siege within.
The movement on the other hand is not only continuing, it is all set to spread wider. The optimism flows from a sober analysis of the great endurance and other unique traits displayed by the movement; the objective economic and political conditions that gave rise to it; the role of the youth, working class and other strata; the new ideas and debates it has thrown up and finally, the bold resistance offered by the protesters followed by orderly retreat and continuing efforts to regroup and reinvent itself in other forms.
<h3>Repression, Resistance, Resurgence</h3>
Thanks to the highly sympathetic public mood, authorities had to wait nearly two months looking for stray incidents of violence and other pretexts like sanitation and public safety, before launching the clean-up operation in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the Occupy movement. The time chosen was mid-November, when President Barack Obama was conveniently out of the country (certainly not out of touch with the administration).
Prior to New York, attempts to mow down the occupations were made in a few other cities. In Oakland for example, the police demolished the encampment on 28 October with rubber bullets, flash bombs and tear gas. There were serious injuries among protesters, including Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, who was hospitalised with a fractured skull and swelling on the brain. The following evening thousands of people reclaimed the occupied space – renamed Oscar Grant Plaza after an African-American man killed two years ago by the city’s transport police – and an angry General Assembly called a general strike for November 2. The strike, the first one to be called by the Occupy Movement, was largely successful. Protesters shut down the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest port in the US, with total worker support.
The most formidable crackdown was launched in New York on the night of 15-16 November. As reported by participants, hundreds of police in riot gear stormed “Liberty Square” at 1 am, shining floodlights and tearing down tents. Sanitation workers loaded occupiers’ belongings into garbage trucks, including the books of the occupation’s library. LRAD sound cannons were deployed, and as many as five police helicopters hovered high overhead, where airspace was closed to media aircraft. On the ground, police cornered reporters out of view from the plaza during the eviction of the protesters, some of whom locked arms around the kitchen area and non-violently resisted removal. They faced pepper spray and batons for doing so.
By early morning, the operation was completed. People started flowing in again past police check points, utilising a court order that they can enter the park without equipment for staying overnight. A General Assembly was held at 7 pm, and the “people’s microphone” – speakers speaking in short phrases which are repeated throughout the assembly, since real microphones are not allowed – was back again.
November 17, the movement’s two-month anniversary, was celebrated with great élan. Over 30,000 people rallied in New York City; there was a blockade of all entry-points to NY Stock Exchange; hundreds participated in non-violent civil disobedience in different parts of the city; more than 200 people were arrested, including a few city council members, several top leaders of major trade unions, a retired Philadelphia Police Captain; at least 10 protesters were seriously injured.
The rally at Foley Square was electric. It was remarkably diverse in participation, cutting across race, religion, gender, and age. As the rally concluded, thousands of participants walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, holding up lights — for a “festival of lights” to mark two months since the birth of the “99% movement”.
Actions were held in at least 30 cities across the country and around the world. In Los Angeles, hundreds of people marched in the financial district downtown, resulting in 27 arrests. At least 100 Occupy DC protesters marched through the heart of Washington, heading to a rally at a Potomac River bridge to highlight their contention that repairing aging infrastructure would create jobs. In Portland, police arrested 25 marchers. Later, a group of protesters disrupted a Wells Fargo bank branch in downtown Portland, staging a sit-in in the bank’s lobby similar to one held the day before at a Bank of America branch in San Francisco. The strong sense of a diverse civic movement for social justice prevailed everywhere.
<h3>99%- A Movement With Unique Features</h3>
International in inspiration, rooted in American reality and universal in impact – such is the beauty of OWS.
On May 30, 2011, the Spanish Indignados movement, inspired by the Arab Spring, made a call for a worldwide protest on October 15 (which was duly observed). In a separate but politically not unconnected move, the Canada-based Adbusters and then hacktivist group (social activists who use their hacking skills for anti-establishment and pro-people objectives) Anonymous gave out a call to “Occupy Wall Street”. What followed – the rapid spread of the struggle, the rich variety of forms of protest including occupation of banks, campuses and public places, frequent clashes with the police, arrests (more than 3600 up to but not including the mid-November crackdown) and atrocities – hardly needs recounting here.
Clarifying the movement’s political approach, the “OccupyWallStreet” website declares that the state and the corporations “are merely two sides of the same oppressive power structure” while “the media distorts things to preserve it”. It calls upon workers “to seize their workplaces collectively, and to organise them democratically”; urges students and teachers to “seize the classrooms and free minds together”; and the broad appeal to everyone is to convene “people’s as¬semblies in every city, every public square, every township”. The banners in “Liberty Square” in New York, “Freedom Plaza” in Washington, DC and myriad other occupations around the country, freely put up by individuals and groups, portend an unprecedented level of political awakening: “Banks got bailed out, We got sold out”; “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” (a quote from Goethe) and so on.
The stupendous sustaining power of the movement is visibly based on enormous popular support. People from literally all walks of life donated money, books, food, medicines, tents, even movable toilets and what not to help the campers and protesters. Political and community life within the camps used to be democratically administered by consensus, with “organisers” and “facilitators” who enjoy the trust of everybody taking care of accounts, kitchens, propaganda, cleaning and sanitation, maintaining peace and tackling undesirable elements, maintaining links with city authorities and co-protesters in other places, managing the “speakers’ queue” (in general assemblies, anyone willing to air one’s views was required to stand in a queue and facilitators tried to ensure that people of colour, immigrants and other marginalised communities get preference over Whites) and suchlike tasks. In New York and elsewhere, “labour outreach committee” tried to build bridges with the organised working class even as other such committees worked for closer unity with local communities for example. Marches were frequently taken out to propagate specific issues (for example, on October 15 thousands of protesters marched through Manhattan to Times Square where they demonstrated before the US Armed Forces recruiting station, criticising the policy of spending money on foreign wars instead of for people at home) and forthcoming campaigns. Thus it was (and remains) a much organised movement, though “leaderless”, i.e., without any hierarchical structure and charismatic top leader.
A radical movement to free society and government from corporate dominance, it is a convergence of a huge number of politically unaffiliated people – including liberals disillusioned with the Democratic Party – with a sprinkling of the Left-minded, anarchists, socialists and others. In this huge melting pot of so many political trends and social groups, the common political denominator can be found in a determination to meet the savage power of Wall Street head-on and usher in a political system where the 99% will decide their own destiny rather than leaving it to the super privileged 1%. (Elsewhere too, the main target is the bourses and banks: for example the “Occupy London Stock Exchange” camp in the square outside St Paul’s Cathedral; the one outside the Amsterdam Stock Exchange in the Netherlands; outside the European Common Bank in Frankfurt; and the hundreds of protest marches in many countries held in October this year.)
How do most people within the movement feel about it? Writing in <em>YES! Magazine</em> (13 November, 2011) Sarah van Gelder, David Korten & Steve Piersanti pinpoint “Ten Ways the Occupy Movement Changes Everything”, which include:
<strong>“... 5. It creates a big tent.</strong>
We, the 99%, are people of all ages, races, occupations, and political beliefs. We will resist being divided or marginalized. We are learning to work together with respect.
<strong>“6. It offers everyone a chance to create change.</strong>
No one is in charge; no organization or political party calls the shots. Anyone can get involved, offer proposals, support the occupations, and build the movement. Because leadership is everywhere and new supporters keep turning up, there is a flowering of creativity and a resilience that makes the movement nearly impossible to shut down. ...
<strong>“9. It offers an ethic and practice of deep democracy and community.
Slow, patient decision-making in which every voice is heard translates into wisdom, common commitment, and power. Occupy sites are set up as communities in which anyone can discuss grievances, hopes, and dreams, and where all can experiment with living in a space built around mutual support.
<strong>“10. We have reclaimed our power.</strong>
Instead of looking to politicians and leaders to bring about change, we can see now that the power rests with us. Instead of being victims to the forces upending our lives, we are claiming our sovereign right to remake the world....”
<h3>The Immediate Eco-Political Backdrop</h3>
The OWS is important because it is happening in a world marked by a very doubtful economic recovery in the US; a failed G20 summit and the festering wound of Eurozone crisis that has led to IMF-sponsored government changes in Greece and Italy and prognosis of a “lost decade” for Europe by authorities like the IMF chief and George Soros; alarming environmental concerns that call for a radical shift in the development discourse; and above all an infinite series of powerful mass movements across the globe.
The very broad support the movement has drawn across US and Europe is explained by the atrocious economic condition of the overwhelming majority of people. It is easy to see why the youth played the role of torch-bearers everywhere: in the US 17.1% of those below 25 are out of work (in the European Union, youth unemployment averages 20.9%, touching 46.2% in Spain, 43 percent in Greece and 29 percent in Italy) while students suffering from privatisation of education graduate with unpayable debts. Not that the middle-aged are faring any better. They face falling real wages and diminished pension rights but once free-flowing credit has dried up. And the elderly are seeing inflation eat away the value of their savings. On the other hand, the country’s top 1 per cent now controls 40 percent of US wealth and their income share hovers around 20 per cent, up from about 8 per cent in the 1970s. According to the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, average incomes between 1979 and 2008 in America grew by over $10,000, but all that growth went to the richest 10 per cent of the country, while the incomes of the remaining 90 per cent effectively declined. According to the Congressional Budget Office, since 1979 the average pre-tax income for the bottom 90% of households has decreased by $900, while that of the top 1% increased by over $700,000. From 1992-2007 the top 400 income earners in the U.S. saw their income increase 392% and their average tax rate reduced by 37%.
In terms of political tactics, it should be noted that before considering the occupation movement, the people of America tried other options like parliamentary elections, lobbying, petitioning, email campaigns, telephone campaigns, marches, rallies. None worked. Barack Obama won the US presidential election with huge popular mobilisation on the plank of “the audacity of hope”. Then after three years of disillusionment, which first expressed itself in the shape of the Tea Party movement that was immediately usurped by the Right Wing, the present grassroots movement arose, signalling a left turn in US politics.
<h3>Role Of Labour And Other Social Groups</h3>
As in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, the first bold steps were taken by the youth. Soon others were attracted, including a host of authors, artists and other eminent personages such as educator and author Cornel West, Canadian writer Naomi Klein, Salman Rushdie, Paul Krugman, Jeff Madrick, Joseph Stiglitz, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, and filmmaker Michael Moore. Most of them participated in some of the programmes and addressed gatherings; some got arrested too. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave a speech on Wall Street, in which he rebuffed allegation that the protesters were utopians trying to achieve something undefined and impossible: “We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare.”
A good many unions, big and small, were quick to pledge their support. On October 4, representatives from more than 14 of the country’s largest labour unions joined the protesters for a mass rally in front of the White House and Department of Treasury. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to clear Zuccotti Park in early October ostensibly for “cleaning”, New York’s unions led the way in mobilizing a crowd of thousands overnight to defend the encampment. In early November, National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of registered nurses in the nation, expressed support for OWS and rallied in front of the White House and Department of Treasury. There was no dearth of reciprocity from the other side too. To cite one of numerous cases, on September 27 an OWS afternoon march ended, not at Wall Street but at a rally by postal workers protesting against a five-day delivery week.
Given the deeply entrenched bourgeois trade unionist culture of AFL-CIO and its close links with the ruling parties (the Democratic Party in particular), it would be too much to expect it or its constituents to participate more actively and directly – say with a general strike – in this potentially radical movement, at least for now. But workers, employees, job-seekers, the partly unemployed and the lower rungs of the self-employed, who join the occupations and the marches on their own, do constitute the main body of the movement. We should also remember that occupation (mainly of factories but of other places too) – also known as sit-in – as an effective form of struggle emerged in the heat of intense class struggle of the American proletariat during the Great Depression of 1930s, and has been frequently put to good use ever since, right up to the United Electrical Workers’ plant occupation in 2008. In February 2011 public employees occupied the Capitol building in Wisconsin State to demonstrate their opposition to a proposed legislation curbing their collective bargaining rights.
Perceptive leaders and activists on both sides feel that unions and the OWS should come closer, so that the latter can benefit from the union’s social stature, organising experience and large membership, while the weakened workers’ movement absorbs some of the protesters’ vitality. However, a strong current in the occupation movement opposes any organisational tie-up. Big TUs are part of the status quo camp, they argue, and may try to derail or hijack the movement in favour of the Democratic Party.
Another historically evolved problem the protest movement confronts is how to bridge the gulf between the predominantly white liberal middle class and the poor, marginalised people of colour. The latter have joined the struggle, but not yet in expected numbers. This may be partly due to the feeling that they have their own issues, own sufferings, for which they have been organising and fighting in their own aggressive ways for years, with little help from the bulk of white middle class. However, the situation is expected to improve as the struggle reaches a new stage.
Occupy movements have also taken place on many campuses, such as UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, UC Irvine and Harvard University. Saint Mary’s College of California held teach-ins to educate students on the movement and encourage them to get involved. These are only a few among many instances, and more is likely to follow.
Every genuine mass movement generates, or regenerates on a new basis, a set of significant debates; it goes forward by solving them or suffers setbacks if it fails to. A couple of such principled debates merit closer scrutiny.
Should the OWS focus on one or a few specific demands? Some believe that while it is impermissible for the most progressive 5% to try and impose their demands on the larger 99%, there certainly are demands that are fully supported by almost the entire 99%. Time and again, opinion polls have revealed that people’s top concern is the jobs crisis, that they are vehemently opposed to cutting social programmes like Medicare, Medicaid and support taxing the rich to solve these national problems. Interviews with protesters in different encampments have pointed to sharp demands arising organically from within the movement—writing off all student debt, ending foreclosures on people’s homes, punitive regulation of Wall Street financial institutions. Such broad demands should be adopted as the agreed or official charter of the movement, while on a city and state level these can be expanded to cover local issues too. That will sharpen the edge of the struggle and attract more supporters, they assert.
This line of argument is rejected by others who fear that a fixed set of demands would lead to negotiations with the government and thus render the movement susceptible to assimilation by the Democrats or some other party. Writes Timothy V. Gatto (Countercurrents.org, 2 November, 2011) --
“...we are not asking Barack Obama to do anything. ... many don’t want this movement to become hijacked by any political party, as the Tea Party was by the right wing, most notably the Koch brothers. We don’t want an Occupation express bus financed by George Soros or the Democratic Party.”
The second major debate concerns the question of organisation. Many, mostly those who are for an agreed charter of demands, hold that the movement should elect a thoroughly democratic, responsible leadership structure. That is necessary, they believe, for taking prompt decisions in complex situations and for steering the struggle through twists and turns to the next higher stages. Opponents insist that the strength of OWS rests on its horizontal, non-hierarchical character (see the position of Sarah van Gelder et al, above) and it should remain unconditionally open and inclusive to its growing number of sympathisers. A strong proponent of this view is Marina Sitrin, activist and editor of a book on non-hierarchical social movements, <em>Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina,</em> who used to train volunteers at Zuccotti Park. During the insurrection in Argentina some ten years ago she saw how people on the street, not elected leaders, not only organized blockades but also brokered deals. This and similar other experiences should be emulated by the “99%”, she asserts.
It is not for us to say from afar, on the basis of some general principles and experience, which positions would be more suitable in the unique situation in America. We shall wait and learn from the way the debates develop in the new, post-crackdown scenario.
<h3>People United Will Never Be Defeated</h3>
By the time the state offensive was launched, the Occupy movement had radically transformed the American discourse on economic policy and participatory democracy, and that in spite of mostly adverse propaganda by the elite media. The hot topics today are no longer the budget deficit or bipartisan consensus, but economic problems ordinary Americans face, such as joblessness, homelessness and ways to overcome these. The campaign had also served to revive traditions of sustained mass political protest and revitalise existing struggles and organizations of students, workers and others.
And now the crackdown has further energised the movement and given it new wings to spread wider. The true face of American democracy stands exposed. The occupations have played a great role as conditioning camps or base camps for a new leg of an uphill trek. In countries like Spain and Greece occupiers had already started shifting to other activities and in the US too, the approaching winter would in any case call for something other than outdoor encampments.
Actually the farsighted have been thinking along these lines for quite some time now. On October 15, the Occupy Wall Street Demands Working Group published “The 99 Percent Declaration” with demands, goals, and solutions. The document calls for a United States General Assembly on July 4, 2012 in Philadelphia to support public works programs, tax hikes on the wealthiest, debt forgiveness, ways to get money out of politics, and amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, this is not an official statement of the New York <em>General Assembly,</em> which means all participants may not agree with the call.
The next major call came, interestingly, just hours before the onslaught on Zuccotti Park began. Adbusters magazine, which originally called for the occupation, promulgated “Tactical Briefing #18: Occupy the High Ground”, suggesting that perhaps the time had come for the movement to move on to more effective forms of protest.
Well, the people of America are doing just that, and the world is watching.