Wall Street occupation ignites mass movement
This article from a participant of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Pham Binh, was written on October 13. The movement has spread around the United States and internationally. There are about 1500 sites globally planning to take part in some form in the October 15 international day of action. (See Occupy Together for a full list.)
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When activists began to occupy Wall Street on September 17, the corporate media and parts of the progressive community castigated them for not having demands. I believed it would be necessary to settle on concrete demands at some point if the protest was to expand beyond the hundreds they attracted in the occupation’s first week.
The growth problem was solved by the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) crackdown and the determination of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists to continue on despite repression. Their actions electrified the country and won mass support.
A union-sponsored march to join OWS was called for October 5, after the NYPD lured 700 activists onto the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1 and carried out mass arrests. The march drew 20,000-30,000 people.
Union marches are usually publicised months in advance and most participants are union members. They come, listen to speeches, wave union-printed placards, go home after a few hours and the status quo continues undisturbed the day after.
Not this time.
Grassroots mass movement
Most of the marchers did not appear to be union members, judging by their homemade signs and lack of union shirts. They had a spirit of defiance about them.
They were energised by the militancy of OWS activists, outraged by the NYPD’s tactics, and felt safe to march because the unions secured permits.
As the masses poured into the financial district that evening, 1000-2000 protesters held a mass meeting and decided via consensus to push through the police barricades at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway in front of TD Bank to try to march on the New York Stock Exchange one block away.
They were repelled twice by the NYPD’s night sticks and pepper spray, and scattered skirmishes occurred. At one point, cops on motorcycles rammed protesters. More than two dozen people were arrested.
OWS's heroism in the face of repression has ignited a mass movement. Occupations and marches have taken place in 250 cities and towns across the United States: thousands came out in Los Angeles, California; 500 in New Orleans, Louisiana; 5000 in Portland, Oregon; 1000 in Tampa, Florida; dozens in Des Moines, Iowa; 150 in Nashville, Tennessee; and 50 in Mobile, Alabama.
All of the protests are led by determined, mostly young people willing to brave arrest and police brutality. All of those taking part see reclaiming public space and the right to protest as being as important as the economic and political problems that drove them to the streets in the first place.
The sweep of the Occupy movement is as wide as it is deep. Almost everyone in the US is mad as hell at Wall Street for nearly destroying the world economy, handing taxpayers the bill, and awarding themselves even bigger bonuses than before even though the economy is on life support.
Wall Street and Corporate America did everything in their power to turn the 99% against them. The Occupy movement has succeeded beyond even the wildest dreams of OWS’s initiators.
This is a mass, grassroots movement, one that does not have leaders or leadership in the conventional sense. The people leading this movement are the people taking part in it. It is direct democracy, unmediated by unions, non-government organisations or political parties.
US army veterans at OWS respond to right-wing commentator Sean Hannity's attacks on the movement.
At Liberty Plaza, OWS can only be described as a self-organised mass of humanity — a combination Woodstock, the Berkeley Free Speech movement from the 1960s, and anarchist commune all rolled into one.
During week one, there were about 100 overnight occupiers in Liberty Plaza; during week two, it grew to more than 200; now, there are more than 600.
After work hours, the number of people at the encampment grows into the thousands. When you approach the area, you hear the low hum of thousands of unending conversations, some political, some not, as drummer groups pound away, their rhythms echoing off of office buildings containing the 1%.
The scene gives new meaning to the term “concrete jungle”, and it sits just hundreds of feet away from the nerve centre of world capitalism, the New York and Nasdaq stock exchanges.
Anti-corporate journalist and author Naomi Klein interviewed on OWS.
OWS’s working groups deal with food, sanitation, medical, security, media, outreach to other activist groups, transparency, facilitating meetings and meeting a variety of other needs of the hundreds-strong collective (last week they had a makeshift barbershop and gave people free haircuts).
Many of the working groups are divided into subgroups due to the complex nature of their tasks. All working groups report to the general assembly (GA), an open mass meeting that uses modified consensus, meaning almost everyone must agree for decisions to be made.
Although the Occupy movement is going from strength to strength, there are problems brewing beneath the surface.
There is an intense level of frustration among occupiers with the GA process and the dysfunctional nature of some working groups. This has led to talk of creating a spokescouncil, a body composed of the working groups that could more efficiently deal with mundane, practical matters — allowing the GA to be more focused and productive.
Some people in working groups skip the GA altogether because they feel it is a waste of time. One woman in the sanitation working group spends 20 hours a day cleaning the plaza and has no time or energy left to take part in the political process.
Bobby, a self-described anarchist who is part of three different working groups, complained at a discussion about the proposed spokescouncil that the GA was often held hostage by the “tyranny of the minority”.
(A minority can block decisions from being passed in a system based on consensus. Conversely, the pressure to agree unanimously to get something done led to ugly racial tensions after people of colour repeatedly blocked the GA from incorporating the absurd claim that racial divisions no longer existed in the text of OWS’s first official declaration.)
Bobby also complained that decisions passed by the GA were often impractical, such as the GA’s approval of the sanitation working group’s request to buy trash bins to help clean Liberty Plaza. The GA’s approval came with conditions: they had to be “fair trade” trash bins and the sanitation group had to look on Craigslist first for the best price.
This made meeting a vital need of the occupiers very difficult.
The simple, horizontal structure originally created around a GA using modified consensus has become a barrier to practical and political work by the occupiers and those involved through working groups.
What was once an asset has now become an impediment.
There is even more tension surrounding the issue of money. At least US$40,000 has been donated to OWS, mostly via the internet. OWS has yet to figure how to account for and control spending.
The GA process is too inefficient and arbitrary to decide this question on its own. For example, the GA voted to give $200 to one of the protest organisers after he said he lost his phone and needed to buy a new one. He was not forced to buy a “free trade” phone or look for the best price on Craigslist.
The biggest challenge facing OWS is not the lack of formal demands. As someone in the OWS media group put it, “we’ll settle on those once the movement stops growing”.
Not having demands allows the movement’s message to be shaped by rank-and-file participants; this all-inclusive openness, combined with the heroic determination to march on Wall Street no matter what, is the key to the Occupy uprising’s fast and furious growth.
Demands are not decisive. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott was declared before a formal list of demands was adopted at a mass meeting.
The boycott led to the complete end of segregation on the bus lines, a far more radical outcome than the boycott’s modest demand that seated blacks not be forced to give up their seats for standing whites on segregated buses.
Historical experience shows that the fate of movements are not determined by lists of demands but by mass action.
The biggest challenge facing OWS is sustaining the movement for the long haul, because the dramatic regulatory, economic and political changes we want are not on the cards in the near future.
It is going to take even more protest than we have seen thus far to win things such as a tax on all financial transactions, or the separation of commercial and investment banking — which would mean splitting up “too big to fail” institutions.
However, there are many things on the local and state level that are within reach: these include reversing the Bush-style tax cut for millionaires championed by New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, raising New York City’s local income tax rate for the 1%, and getting banks or state attorney generals to halt home foreclosures.
Anything that alleviates the suffering of the 99% is worth fighting for.
Creating a sustainable movement also means building or modifying our infrastructure of protest and organisation to be more responsive to our needs, more democratic, and more open to mass participation beyond the core of people who can “all day, all week, occupy Wall Street”.
Properly staffed and well-run working groups would take the burden off of the very committed occupiers, who are members of multiple groups and are working so hard they do not or cannot take part in the time-consuming decision-making process.
OWS is the vanguard of the Occupy movement, and what happens at Liberty Plaza will play a disproportionate role in shaping the future of the biggest rebellion to rock this country since the 1960s.
OWS has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations thus far, and we need to be clear and honest about what can be done better if we hope to build on this success and reign in the most greedy, powerful and ruthless 1% the world has ever known.
[All of Pham Binh’s writings on Occupy Wall Street and other topics can be found at www.planetanarchy.net.]
A short film on Occupy Wall Street.