Inspired by the Arab Spring and Spain's movement of The Indignants (which began occupying city squares to build a citizens' movement for real democracy and against austerity), the Occupy Wall Street movement began taking to the streets in September in the famous financial district in New York. Brutal repression by police helped fuel support for those camping at Liberty Plaza (as Zuccotti Park has been renamed by the occupiers). Increasing support has come from trade unions — including a union-organised march in New York of tens of thousands of people in solidarity with OWS.
The movement has also spread rapidly across the United States. The IBTimes said on October 6: “More than 100 cities have clocked in under the 'Occupy' moniker, with more names appearing on the movement's unofficial cyber bulletin board, occupytogether.orgoccupytogether.org, every few digital minutes.”
That day, WorkersCompas.org reported that the Occupy Portland movement began with a protest involving tens of thousands of people.
Occupy Wall Street statement: 'All wronged by corporate forces are our allies'
United States: 'We are the 99%' testimonies
Occupy Wall Street spreads to Australia -- 'Occupy' gatherings for major cities on October 15
Below, Pham Binh, a participant in OWS, provides an eyewitness account of this dramatic movement.
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The entrapment and arrest of 700 peaceful Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1 has created a huge wave of support for their movement.
The number of daytime occupants in Liberty Plaza (as Zuccotti Park in New York has been renamed by the occupiers) doubled or tripled from 100 the week before to 200-300 on October 3 and 4.
These people are the core who maintain the occupation of the plaza, making it possible for several hundreds and sometimes thousands to hold rallies in the late afternoon, and participate in the open mic speakouts and General Assembly meetings in the evening.
Life at Occupy Wall Street camp at Liberty Plaza on day five of the occupation (September 21).
The mood of the crowd is defiant and determined. Quite a few people were still unsure of how exactly they had been trapped by the New York Police Department (NYPD), but that did not matter.
What mattered was that OWS made front page news in papers around the world along with its official list of grievances, undercutting naysayers who pretended it was a bunch of ignorant jobless kids without a clue as to what they want.
What mattered was that Transit Workers Union Local 100 backed up its solidarity speeches on September 30 with action by filing an injunction against the city for ordering their drivers to take arrested protesters to jail.
The drivers cooperated with the orders, but only because armed high-ranking NYPD officers told them to do so. Who can blame the drivers? You never know which officer might be the next Anthony Bologna (the NYPD officer filmed pepper spraying OWS activists in an unprovoked attack).
On October 5, a brave soul named Steve from the 1% came to talk to the people in the park. He claimed to work for a nearby investment firm, and he certainly dressed, spoke and acted the part.
Many of the activists questioned him and tried to debate him, but he gave them mostly suave evasions, which generated a lot of frustration among the crowd of five-10 that gathered around him.
A white Vietnam veteran and hospice nurse (I never saw an old woman with a purple heart until then) asked Steve why should Medicare or Social Security be privatised using a voucher system? Why should the elderly and sick be forced to do with less during these hard times?
Steve replied that he does not support these moves and believed in a “strong social safety net” (a direct quote).
Next, a middle-aged black guy named Keith Thomas (who later turned out to be a transit worker injured on the job) asked Steve whether or not Wall Street firms had any type of moral obligation to their employees. (Thomas was laid off from a Wall Street firm prior to his job in the transit system.) Steve agreed they have a moral obligation, but added that no entity, whether it was a corporation or government, had obligations that were set in stone.
When I heard this, I could not keep my mouth shut any more and interjected: “So what about Medicare and Social Security? Those are obligations, right? And you said you supported them.” I pointed out that “too big to fail” banks enjoy a government guarantee that they would get bailed out again as in 2008.
Not surprisingly, Steve did not take well to my line of questioning and left soon after. The crowd thanked him for having the dialogue, as did I, and we asked him to come again.
I doubt he will.
In the course of the exchange, some things became clear.
First, Wall Street and corporate America will try to deflect responsibility for what OWS is upset about in the hopes that it falls for the Tea Party mantra that “government is the problem”.
When Steve said we should be protesting in Washington DC, demonstrators said Wall Street owns the government.
Some even went so far to say that Wall Street is the government.
Second, OWS has become what can only be described as a people’s movement. When you go into the park, it really is the 99% that you find there.
Thomas later told me he felt like this was “just like 1968” (when large popular revolts shook the world from the United States, to western Europe, and to Czechoslovakia in the Soviet bloc). He said it evoked feelings in him he had not felt for a long time.
There is a feeling of empowerment, like justice is on our side, of good will, and of seriousness of purpose in the air that is very difficult to capture with mere words. Even pictures and video footage, worth many millions of words, cannot convey it.
You have to come to Liberty Park to experience it. And once you experience it, you cannot stop the inner urge you feel to fight and win, against all odds. It is this feeling that is propelling the movement into the most unlikely of places, like Mobile, Alabama.
I am not old enough to remember 1968, but I imagine this is what it was like.
The occupation in the past few days has become much more multiracial than in the first and second weeks. I saw ageing Vietnam veterans (some of them homeless), union workers, high schoolers, journalists from the corporate media, progressive journalist Laura Flanders, Oscar award-wining filmmaker Michael Moore, Hispanic and African immigrants, low-wage workers who work nearby, retirees, people with disabilities, and college students.
The class and racial breakdown of the occupants looks much more like that of a rush hour subway car in midtown Manhattan than an alternative music concert as it did previously.
If you hear otherwise, you are hearing lies.
The only people missing are the the Steves of the city — the 1%. They are asking their friends in the corporate media, “is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal? … Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”
Wall Street is worried about what this means. And they are right to be. We are onto them.
The occupy movement is growing roots in all communities among all age groups and races. Everyone is bringing their issue to the table and receiving nothing but 100% support.
There is not a progressive cause OWS will not get behind, nor an injustice that it will not try to address in some way.
Union members from New York City’s largest municipal workers union, DC37, held a rally at OWS on October 3, as did the Teamsters who have been locked out by 1% auction dealer Sotheby’s for months. There were quite a few members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) there as well (their headquarters is two blocks away).
All the middle-aged union members I saw were grinning from ear to ear, cheered by the defiant and militant spirit that was once the calling card of the US labour movement.
Speaking of which, I ran into a young man at the occupation on October 3 who said he was a descendant of the Molly Maguires (a secret organisation of Irish-American coalminers who fought for workers’ rights in the 19th century).
I never expected to hear that name at a protest in this day and age (they were framed and executed in the 1870s using the same methods the state of Georgia used last month to kill Troy Davis because they sought to organise Irish immigrant workers in Pennsylvania’s coal fields).
This young man, Mark Purcell, traveled from central Pennsylvania to OWS and said he planned to get involved in whatever occupation happens in Philadelphia.
Mark told me he realised the system was totally corrupt when he worked at an Allentown warehouse as a temporary worker. He said the companies took advantage of undocumented immigrants since they have no legal rights or protections.
The minute he complained about working conditions, the company he worked for told him to talk to the temp agency that was technically his employer, and the temp agency fired him.
He was pissed off that companies outsource labour to these agencies and use that to dodge responsibility for working conditions. “It’s bullshit,” he said.
The spirit of the Molly Maguires lives on at OWS.
On October 5, National Nurses United, 1199SEIU, SEIU Local 32BJ, the New York AFL-CIO, the UFT, Communications Workers, Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, the NY Central Labor Council mobilised to rally and march to join OWS. Some reports say as many as 30,000 people joined the march.
October 5 union march in support of 'Occupy Wall Street'.
In addition to the alphabet soup of unions mobilising, student activists are organising walkouts from Hunter College, the New School (where professors issued a statement supporting their students’ walkout), and even New York University. Even the children of the 1% support OWS.
The last time the unions mobilised was in May, when the UFT brought out more than 10,000 people during its contract negotiations with Mayor Micharl Bloomberg. The proceedings were tightly controlled and the messages carefully managed from above by union leaders.
This time, things will be different. The turnout will surprise everyone, and the message will not be handed down to the city’s workers and students from on high. “Students and labour can shut the city down,” we shouted at the rallies on September 30 against police brutality.
Perhaps we were prescient.
[Reprinted from Pham Binh's website, www.planetanaychy.net . Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, and The Indypendent.]