“If we focus on the possibilities and shed our despair, our hesitancy and our cynicism, and if we collectively come to Wall Street with critical thinking, ideas and solidarity, we can change the world.” – Occupied Wall Street Journal.
This statement captures the sentiment of the mass occupation of Wall Street that began on September 17. The occupation was prepared for months, after a call was issued by the group Adbusters in mid-July and a coalition of activists came together to form the New York City General Assembly.
Organisers had hoped for 20,000 people to respond to the call for the initial occupation, but the protest of around 2000 was not deterred, deciding to set up camp in Liberty Square. Since that time, there have been at least 500 people at any one time in the square.
The first edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, published as the occupation entered its third week and distributed to more than 50,000 people in New York, gives a time line of the movement. The starting point is identified as the successful people’s power uprising in Tunisia, followed by Egypt and the protest movements in Wisconsin, London, Spain and Greece.
By adopting the same tactic of taking over public space, the Wall Street occupation has become a focal point for the mass of discontent and anger at the corporate greed represented by the bankers and financial institutions of Wall Street.
While identifying many of the issues that bring people to support the occupation, unlike the movements in Egypt and Tunisia that inspired the occupation, it is yet to formulate a central unifying demand. This has brought criticism and derision from the political establishment, which claims the movement lacks a “clear message”. This was addressed in the Occupied Wall Street Journal:
“A fully formed movement is not going to spring from the ground. It has to be created. That is why it’s called grassroots. Protesters are presenting plenty of sophisticated ideas: end corporate personhood; tax stock trading; nationalize the banks; socialize medicine; fund government jobs with a real stimulus; lift restrictions on labor organizing; allow cities to turn abandoned homes into public housing; build a green economy. But how can we get broad agreement on any of these? If the protesters came with a ready-made set of demands it would have only limited their potential. They would have been dismissed as pie in the sky … or something weak ... to be co-opted by a failed political system that would only undermine the movement. Rather it is only through the common struggle, debate and popular democracy that we will create genuine solutions which have legitimacy. And that is what is occurring down at Wall Street.”
The occupation is fierce in its defence of its democracy and independence from any sections of the political establishment. There are daily meetings of up to 1000 people in Liberty Park to discuss the issues and organisation of the occupation. The minutes of these meetings can be found on the New York General Assembly web page http://nycga.cc.
Stemming from this participatory democracy, a strong sense of collectivity is very apparent – with a massive operation under way to organise the logistics of the occupation, from communications and media to food distribution, first aid, a library and bedding, all while not being able to set up any tents or other structures! It’s a feat that would be possible only with collectivity and a spirit of determination.
It is this determination that has inspired the spread of the movement to more than 70 cities so far.
The movement is striking a chord among those who are struggling daily against the economic and social brutality of capitalism, which has intensified as the ruling class makes workers pay for the crisis of the system. As the Declaration of the Occupation, issued on September 29, states: “They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage. They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give executives exorbitant bonuses. They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.”
The occupation journal also provides some figures that highlight this injustice: 25 million people in the US are unemployed; more than 50 million live without health insurance; up to 100 million people live in poverty. This is the reality of the richest country on earth!
There are hundreds of stories from supporters of the occupation that also tell of this reality, many of which are recorded on http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com:
“We have one income for a family of seven. We can’t sell our house to move somewhere with more job prospects because the real estate market is flooded with cheap foreclosures. We are living paycheck to paycheck and barely getting by. I know that we are among the lucky ones because we do have one solid income, our health, a roof over our heads and enough to eat.”
In mid-September a survey carried out by various financial organisations and the US Conference of Mayors found that one-third of people in the US would be unable to pay their mortgage or rent beyond one month if they lost their job. With a deepening of the economic crisis looming, the threat of unemployment and homelessness is a reality for many.
While responding to these immediate conditions and drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring, the movement also draws on the experiences of activist campaigns over many years. In particular, there is a strong echo of the anti-corporate globalisation protests in many of the chants and slogans of the occupation: “Whose streets? Our streets!”; “This is what democracy looks like”. That movement, which was sparked in the US by the 1999 mass demonstration against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, was derailed by the reaction instigated by the US government following September 11, 2001 and the demobilisation of the anti-war movement after the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.
The occupation has provided real hope, not the false Obama-style hope promoted by the political establishment. The ongoing betrayal of Obama is helping to fuel the anger, a sentiment captured by an occupation participant quoted in the occupation broadsheet: “I’m sick of my faith being used to justify oppression, injustice, greed and war”.
Rather than wallowing in demoralisation and despair, the occupation movement is turning this anger into action. Most importantly, it is helping to rebuild confidence in collective organisation. Such collective confidence is essential to counter the passivity fostered by the political establishment through the illusion that change can come through the electoral system or anywhere else in the political establishment.
The Wall Street occupation has drawn the support of a number of trade unions, including Transport Workers Union Local 100; National Nurses United; Amalgamated Transit Union and the United Steelworkers Union. Both the United Postal Service workers and the Continental and United pilots held marches to join the occupation, where they were met with strong support and solidarity for their struggles.
When people begin to break with passivity, the political establishment resorts to violence to try to stop collective political organising. On September 24, four women were kettled by police as they took part in a protest and pepper-sprayed. The incident was captured on video and received widespread condemnation.
The previous day there had been 87 arrests at a peaceful protest, at which anger was high after the murder of Troy Davis in Georgia. On October 1, the police kettled thousands of protestors after directed a march onto the Brooklyn Bridge, – they then blocked the bridge at both ends – proceeding to make a mass arrest of 700 people. Many videos, photos and stories are being shared through social media demonstrating other intimidation tactics of the police, which also highlight the deep-seated racism, sexism and queerphobia perpetuated and enforced by the police.
Just as happened in the Arab Spring uprisings, which faced far more brutal repression, attempts to intimidate the movement have only created more support for the occupation. While the political establishment continues to scramble to find ways to contain and repress the movement, the reality is that any intensification of repression has the potential to backfire further. As the occupation journal points out, “[A]ssaulting peaceful crowds in a public square, demanding real democracy – economic and not just political – would remind the world of the brutal autocrats who brutalised their people demanding justice, before they collapsed in the Arab Spring”.
Police across the US are trying to prevent the spread of the movement, attempting to shut down occupations in Boston, New Mexico, Iowa and Oregon.
Along with its growth in the US, the movement is also spreading internationally; occupations are now taking place on every continent except Antarctica. On October 15, an international day of action will be held. In Australia there will be occupations in most capital cities and a number of regional areas (see Occupy Australia for more details
The occupation movement has captured the hope of the Arab Spring and brought it to the belly of the beast. Hope now springs from the most unlikely place in the world: Wall Street. But it is not the Wall Street of the exploiters, it is the Wall Street of the people.
It is shaking the status quo because it is breaking the chains of despair, passivity and alienation that keep the exploited atomised and disunited. It is going to the very heart of the problem, the root cause of the suffering of people throughout the world – the capitalist system. The movement may have a long way to go to develop a clear alternative to this system and the political action that will be necessary to replace it, but it is creating the opportunity and the space to have those discussions and debates. It is taking the initiative back, refusing to wait for solutions from the minority who profit from the exploitation and poverty of the majority.
It is putting into practice the understanding that if we want a world that runs in the interests of the majority, then it is up to us to create it. That is perhaps the most important message coming from this movement: “We don’t have to accept the world imposed on us by the banks, politicians and police. We are the future”.