United States: Occupy defies crackdown, continues struggle

November 18, 2011
30,000-strong march to mark two months of Occupy Wall Street. New York, November 17. Photo: Kasamaproject.org

A spirited mass meeting in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park after a police crackdown and a major student strike in Berkeley, California on November 15 showed the determination of the Occupy movement in the face of police repression and lies from politicians and the corporate media.

In New York, about 1500 people turned out for a general assembly (GA) less than 24 hours after police in riot gear rousted those camping out in Zuccotti Park, arresting up to 200 while trashing tents, supplies and even books.

It was a meticulously organised, military-style exercise — the flagship operation of coordinated police assaults on Occupy encampments across the US.

“There were about 1500 people at the GA in the park, and the mood was defiant — even joyful,” said Sherry Wolf, an Occupy activist and veteran socialist. “There is a sense of resistance, a feeling that this movement isn’t going anywhere.”

For almost the entire day, the New York Police Department kept Zuccotti Park — renamed Liberty Plaza by protesters — closed, even though a judge initially ordered the city to reverse course. It was only when a higher court ruled in the city’s favour that billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered cops to let protesters return to the park.

Protesters were told that they could stay in the park 24 hours a day if they chose — but they would not be allowed to take in tents, sleeping bags or tarps. And to enter the park, activists had to pass through metal barricades and a gauntlet of cops, submit to searches and allow themselves to be photographed.

The clear aim of police was to turn what had been a kind of liberated zone into a “protest pen” — the small, barricaded spaces routinely set up by cops to limit protest, and bitterly despised by activists.

But Bloomberg’s and the NYPD’s attempt at intimidation did not work. On November 17, at least 30,000 people marched in New York to mark the two-month anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Queens also held its first general assembly on November 11, attracting about 150 people. Similar efforts are underway in other parts of the city and on college campuses.

Big unions — including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 and the United Federation of Teachers — urged their members to turn out for November 17.

The unions condemned the police crackdown on Zuccotti Park. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the raid “inexcusable”, saying: “Americans must be allowed to speak out against pervasive inequality, even if the truth discomfits the 1%.”

Other unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) also spoke out against the eviction of the encampment.

The task now is to translate this labour-Occupy alliance into ongoing struggle. One obvious focus in New York City is support for the contract struggles of three groups of workers: bus and subway employees in the TWU and janitors in the SEIU, as well as telephone workers in the Communications Workers of America, who are still battling Verizon after a two-week strike in August ended without an agreement.

Occupy Wall Street’s labour committee is already involved in solidarity efforts with these struggles. A win by any one of these unions would be a big boost for labour, which is still being hammered by layoffs and employer demands for concessions.

Then there is the threatened closure of dozens of public schools by Bloomberg’s unelected school board — an issue already taken up by the Occupy Wall Street education committee. Struggles against eviction and deportation of immigrants have also been focal points of activism.

The same potential to develop the movement on these and other fronts exists nationally. However, the movement must also deal with the impact of the coordinated, national police repression of the camps and keep up the fight for the right to protest and organise freely.

The Occupy struggle in Berkeley points to how the fight for the right to protest can bring new energy and numbers to ongoing struggles.

At a November 15 GA of more than 1200 people, 88% voted to reestablish an encampment that had been violently shut down by police six days earlier.

The crowd later swelled to at least 5000, and the evening GA transitioned into a teach-in led by a relative of the late Mario Savio, a leader of the 1960s Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

People read out portions of Savio’s famous speech in defence of the right to protest to huge cheers. It was clear from the crowd, which represented activists of two generations, that the torch of struggle was being passed.

Another featured speaker was Berkeley professor and former US secretary of labour Robert Reich, who spoke on the topic of “Class warfare in America”.

Reich said: “I will believe corporations are people when Texas and Georgia execute them.” He spoke about how the poverty and inequality in the US during the 1960s laid the basis for the Free Speech Movement.

The November 15 mobilisation showed that the local student Occupy movement was undeterred. The Berkeley student struggle had been given a boost in the big November 2 general strike call in neighbouring Oakland, an action that shut down the city’s ports with a community picket line of thousands of people.

The Oakland protest had been called in response to the near-lethal police violence to clear the Occupy Oakland camp a week earlier. So when Berkeley cops carried out their own crackdown on November 9, students followed Oakland’s example and called a strike of their own.

The Berkeley action added a big mobilisation to a previously planned week of action against state budget cuts to higher education. Besides challenging police repression and opposing budget cuts, the protest also called for the reinstatement of affirmative action in the University of California (UC) system.

The November 15 action began with a teach-in at noon. A featured speaker was Robert Slaughter, an African American political science major at nearby Saint Mary’s College who was among the 39 people arrested in the November 9 violent police attack.

In prison, Slaughter was separated from other prisoners, accused by cops of being in a gang, held longer than anyone else and banned from the Berkeley campus.

Zack Aslanian-Williams, a Berkeley student and Occupy Cal activist who helped organise the speak-out for Slaughter, said it was important to highlight the racist role of police as mayors across the US use cops to crack down on encampments: “The 1% and their police counted on their ability to divide and cripple us by singling out activists of colour and subjecting them to the most brutal treatment.

“They expected that we would not rally around them. Today, we proved them wrong by putting issues of racism and police brutality at the front of our movement. I’m excited by the possibility of an intentionally multiracial and anti-racist Occupy movement.”

Thousands then poured out of classroom buildings for a 2.30pm march through Berkeley that gathered up to 5000 at its peak. Among the protesters were about 500 activists from Occupy Oakland, which continues organising despite repeated police crackdowns on its encampment.

The protest was mainly driven by students, but labour activists were visible too, especially Berkeley graduate employees, members of United Auto Workers Local 2865.

The grad union, along with undergraduate activists, used the student strike and march to build momentum for a protest the next day in San Francisco against the UC Board of Regents.

But the regents, recognising that the Occupy movement had given new strength to the ReFund California coalition’s call for mass demonstrations, canceled their meeting.

The regents’ attempt to avoid protesters is a victory for the movement, wrote Joshua Brahinsky, recording secretary for the campus union at the UC Santa Cruz.

“The Regents think that by canceling their meeting, they can deny students and workers a voice,” he wrote in an email. “But Wall Street and the Regents can’t hide from us — we’ll be marching through San Francisco’s financial district where many of them have offices.”

The protesters oppose the so-called trigger cuts built into the state budget by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and the Democratic majority in both houses of the California state legislature in case of declining state revenues.

These cuts likely mean an additional US$100 million in reduced resources for the UC system on top of the $650 million in cuts the state made in June.

The UC regents’ plan to offset these cuts with an 81% increase in tuition over the next five years, layoffs for unionised campus employees, and heavier teaching loads for professors and graduate students.

The Democrats in Sacramento justify the cuts on the basis of the ongoing recession, but California’s 1% is awash in cash. Last year, there were 716,316 families in California with liquid assets greater than $1 million.

Thus, taxing the richest families just 0.1% on these assets, or $1000 each, could make up for the entire UC budget shortfall. Taxing them about 4% on these assets would bring the state an extra $25 billion to $30 billion, completely closing the budget deficit.

Now the Occupy movement provides Californian student activists with the possibility of linking their struggle to a wider fight to tax the rich.

“Today, UC Berkeley demonstrated its solidarity with the Occupy movement by striking, marching on banks and exposing the administrations’ authoritarian modes of operation,” said undergraduate student Jonathan Nunez. “Today began the awakening of a social consciousness capable of transforming our society.”

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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