Occupy everywhere

“WE ARE the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.”

So reads a statement on the web page “We are the 99 percent,” one of several sites that put out the call to occupy Wall Street on September 17. 

Occupy Wall Street is transforming the political landscape in the United States. Almost overnight, the accumulated bitterness and discontent that has been seething below the surface is finding expression—summed up in the widespread understanding that “we are the 99 percent.” 

The movement has tapped into a deep vein of anger and dissatisfaction, drawing its inspiration from events happening all over the world, from the revolution in Egypt and the occupation of Tahrir Square to the movement of the “Indignados” in Spain and the occupation of the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin last February. Moreover, it has given people a clear target: Wall Street and the parasitical minority that has wrecked the economy and millions of people’s lives with callous disregard. But it isn’t just anger that the occupy movement is tapping—it is a desire for answers, and for radical changes in the priorities of the system.

At first scorned and ignored by the press and politicians, the protests—which continue to spread across the country into dozens of US cities, from Portland, Oregon, to Columbia, South Carolina—has now become daily news. Politicians have been forced to respond. Even Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, a key player in the bank bailouts that have angered so many, was forced to concede of the protesters that: “They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can’t blame them.”

Millions are inspired by the movement.  An October Time magazine poll finds that 54 percent of respondents had a “very favorable” (25 percent) or “somewhat favorable” (29 percent) view of the movement. Only 23 percent had an “unfavorable” view of the movement, while another 23 percent said they “don’t know enough” yet. The movement has become a topic of discussion in thousands of workplaces, homes, campuses, and schools across the country. Every day new people—mostly working-class, of all ages, races, and occupations—are joining the movement. Many are showing up to a protest for the first time, and some are quickly becoming organizers and leaders. It’s as if people had been waiting for just this moment, feel that they have finally been given a voice, and are eager to raise it. 

The October 15 international Day of Protest saw tens of thousands of people take similar action around the world, from Tokyo, to Taipei, to Times Square.

The sentiment seems to be that finally our side is fighting back. 

There were several developments in the first week of Occupy Wall Street that helped it to reach broader layers and achieve national prominence. A demonstration the day after the execution by the state of Georgia of an African-American death row prisoner, Troy Davis, led to 1,000 protestors marching from Union Square to Liberty Plaza. The angry, multi-racial (and unpermitted) demonstration broke through police lines several times on its way downtown. This helped to give a militant and political character to the occupation as activists took up the slogan “we are all Troy Davis.” It established Occupy Wall Street as a potential focal point for different struggles. 

By the time activists began an unpermitted march from the encampment the following Saturday, the police were eager to send a message that such actions would not be tolerated. But the NYPD’s brutal and unprovoked assault on peaceful protestors, broadcast on national media, instead inspired widespread sympathy. Immediately, thousands of new people began coming down to the occupation. 

Occupy activists reached out to labor, offering solidarity for local battles such as a strike at the famous Central Park Boathouse restaurant. In turn, major New York City unions recognized the importance of Occupy Wall Street and endorsed it—setting the stage for a labor-led demonstration on October 5 that brought out tens of thousands of people.

Each attempt by various mayors and their police forces to shut it down (in Boston, Atlanta, and New York, to name three) has resulted in stepped-up efforts to defend the occupations and a surge of indignation and greater numbers streaming down to offer their support. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg called off a plan to clear the park for “cleaning” on October 14 after thousands streamed into the newly renamed Liberty Plaza (Zucotti Park) to defend the encampment. Notably, the AFL-CIO put out a call for people to come down and defend the park.

One of the most exciting developments as ISR goes to press is the emergence of Occupy the Hood, an initiative by Black activists to bring in issues of racism more systematically into the movement. 

The movement is overwhelmingly of a left bent, expressing the frustrations and aspirations of working class people and struggling students. However, right-wing libertarian Ron Paul supporters have appeared at some of the occupations around the country, in particular in the south. Their criticisms of Wall Street come from the right—they are opposed to social programs and want unfettered capitalism, and they oppose abortion and immigrant rights. Paul, moreover, was the only member of congress to vote against a resolution commemorating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The movement should repudiate these forces as it moves to include participants from, and build solidarity with, all of the exploited and oppressed in our society.

No one can predict how the movement will unfold—how large it will get, how many cities it will spread to, or how long it lasts. However, in a number of ways, the movement is already a success in what it has done to revive the legitimacy of mass protest and establish beginnings of a new radical left in the United States.

The inspiration of Tahrir and the Egyptian revolution is important. Of course, the movement here is not on the scale of Tahrir, which brought together millions of participants and which had an immediate revolutionary aim—overthrow of a dictator. But the plan to occupy and stay—perhaps also inspired by the occupation of the Capitol building in Madison last winter—first in New York and now in many other cities across the United States and the globe—has created a focal point that can accommodate and advance many struggles and issues, a gathering point for the discontented and dispossessed, and a site of mutual cooperation and debate. The occupation movement is a hothouse environment for generalizing the struggle and for developing activists with a broader and deeper sense of the connection between struggles and the sense of a common enemy—capitalism.

In just the first few weeks of its existence, this movement has achieved rapid and stunning successes. It has captured national attention and sympathy. It has survived repeated acts of police violence and repression. And it has effectively brought in broader social forces—such as labor and community activist—which can help to deepen and broaden the movement’s base. The organizers of Occupy Wall Street set themselves the goal of maintaining the encampment for two months. But at this point, everyone recognizes that all previous expectations have been outgrown. This is clearly the beginning of a movement of much more lasting significance.

But if the occupation movement is to continue to expand its reach and, crucially, involve the large numbers of people gravitating towards it, it will have to address key political questions. For example, early on activists have had to deal with the question of the police. Many protestors see the police as part of the 99 percent and, therefore, as potential allies. But this idea has become more untenable as the movement has been hit by waves of police repression. While the debate is far from settled, people have begun to learn valuable lessons about the role of the police in maintaining social control.

This is how all the political questions emerging from this movement will have to be settled—in the process of common struggle. Take, for example, the question of whether the movement should have demands—a common debate taking place amongst activists and in the media. Many of the core activists who began this movement oppose demands either on the basis that they are too limiting, or a concession to the power structure. And there is no doubt that the absence of demands helped the movement to become a kind of catch-all for so many people angered by Wall Street greed. But if the movement does not articulate its own demands, it is all too easy for those with greater funding, organization and access to power to put their own spin on the movement. For example, there are sections of the Democratic Party that would like nothing more than for this movement to be a launching pad for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

Equally important is the fact that there are more and more people coming into this movement who have demands that urgently need to be met: for housing, for jobs, healthcare, an end to student debt, and so on. The question of demands is also a question of how to deepen the social base and organization of this movement. Already, there is pressure for this to develop as the movement grows. For example, the involvement of larger numbers of people of color provides an opportunity to link opposition to the police repression of protestors with the draconian police policies and tactics that are used to terrorize minority communities.

Students are beginning to talk about a campaign against Citibank—the second-largest holder of student debt in the country. And the unions that have come out in support of the occupation movement face their own battles that deserve the support of the movement.

Many of the activists involved in this movement see themselves, correctly, as part of the international movement we have seen in countries like Egypt, Greece, Spain and Chile. The emergence of this struggle in the heart of world capitalism can be an inspiration to people around the world, as the October 15 international day of action has shown.

But the movement here will also have to learn some of the lessons of the international struggles—most importantly, that the occupations of the squares can be a tremendous boost to the development of a new, resurgent left, but that it will take a much higher level of social mobilization, and crucially, working-class action, to confront the massive assault being unleashed by the 1 percent. We are at the very beginning of rebuilding the confidence, organization and solidarity that are desperately needed. But it is an impressive beginning, and in this climate of mass discontent, it has the potential to grow quite quickly. From the Arab Spring to the American Autumn, the fight is on.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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