Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Guest Blog By Marc Herbst, of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest: Where Fashion and Style Don't Matter, or, Why it doesn't matter that Occupy Wall Street look like a bunch of hippies, yippies, or punks.
Movements happen not because people want things to stay the same but because folks realize that something has to change. This is a first step in bringing individuals into action. In become active, in become activists, people individually go from accepting the status quo to recognizing the need for something new. Only “conservative” movements suggest a need to go back to some imagined “was.” Radical, progressive movements, like this one, instead suggest the need to invent new forms, new ways of being as individuals and collectives. The open forums that characterized Tahrir, the Spanish Plazas and the new Occupations of Liberty and elsewhere are such forums for which to forge that new look.
And this here is where style matters. To allow for this or any other general movement to grow, there need be a sensitivity to the difference between what people are saying and how they say it. There need be a sensitivity to the fact that under this political platform and principals of solidarity, many manifestations are possible. Thus we need to design a keen eye as to what people hope too appear as and not how they currently look, a sensitive ear as to what individuals aspire to sound like and not how they sound. Thrill started somewhere, the civil rights movement started somewhere. In that manner, any movement that begins with a bunch of students or a bunch of leftists will in the end come to look like our movement. And it will look like nothing we've ever seen before.
“There are 503 such privately-owned "public spaces" in 320 buildings in New York, all but a few in Manhattan, and they are coming under increasing scrutiny,” notes Anne Schwartz.
“They owe their existence to zoning laws, passed in 1961 and amended numerous times since, that allowed developers to build taller structures in exchange for creating and maintaining plazas, atriums, passageways, and other spaces, all supposedly open to the public. Together, they amount to 82 acres, one-tenth the size of Central Park. In exchange, developers were permitted to add on an extra 16 million square feet of floor space.”
“The space was given to them for a concession,” notes Brooklyn College sociologist Greg Smithsimon, the author of September 12 and co-author of The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York’s City’s Public Spaces. “It should be treated as a public space. It is not the same as private space. They gave it to the public in exchange for very profitable zoning concessions, explicitly space, square footage. The building is taller and more profitable because they gave the people that public space. It’s a trade and the trade should be maintained.”
In The Beach Beneath the Streets, Smithsimon describes the program.
The zoning regulation further specifies that plazas are meant to be public spaces: “Public plazas are . . . intended for public use and enjoyment. The standards . . . are intended to serve the following specific purposes: (a) to serve a variety of users of the public plaza area; (b) to provide spaces for solitary users while at the same time providing opportunities for social interaction for small groups; and (c) to provide safe spaces, with maximum visibility from the street and adjacent buildings” Thus, the spaces are supposed to be publicly accessible, but critically, most building owners have never treated them that way.
From this perspective, the Occupy Wall Street movement is using this space as it was intended by New York City Zoning Laws. The problem is few but those sociologists who have taken the time to study them have ever pushed to see how open these spaces really are. In a 2001 report entitled Public Owned Private Spaces, the Municipal Arts Society took the city to task for not making the spaces more accessible. When public space group Times Up! tested the accessibility of the plazas, members of the group were routinely told to leave. “These are private spaces” security guards note. If one tells them, these are spaces designed for the public, they say, “Come on man I’m only doing my job” followed by the caveat, “If you do not leave I am calling the police.” Much of the debate about bonus plazas hinges on the definition of accessibility.
As William Whyte said, “What does ‘accessible’ mean? A commonsense interpretation would be that the public could use the space in the same manner it uses any public space, with the same freedoms and the same constraints. Many buildings managements have been operating with a much narrower concept of access. They shoo away entertainers and people who distribute leaflets or give speeches. Apartment buildings managements often shoo away everybody except residents. This is a flagrant violation of the zoning intent, but to date no one has gone to court on it. The public’s right in urban plazas would seem clear. Not only are plazas used as public spaces; in most cases the owner has been specifically, and richly, rewarded for providing them. He has not been given license to allow only those public activities he happens to approve of. He may assume that he has license, and some owners have been operating on this basis with impunity. But that is because nobody has challenged them. A stiff, clarifying test is in order,” (quoted in the Beach Beneath the Streets).
The fight over Zuccotti Park may offer just such a test. If the city chooses to push occupants out of the space on the grounds that it is privately owned, they will not be steady ground. Zuccotti Park was created in exchange for increased height for 1 Liberty Plaza the building just to the north of the Park. Of course, the tenants of 1 Liberty Plaza do not want us to know the public helped pay for their digs. They include Goldman Sachs, Royal Bank of Canada, as well as NASDQ Headquarters, among others. There is a reason Occupy Wall Street chose this location. Few of these corporations are interested in an extended discussion of democracy in New York City, such as those taking shape in the public space known as Zuccotti Park. But it is just what they will have if they work with the NYPD to evict the members of Occupy Wall Street from the bonus plaza known as Zuccotti Park.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Just got back from the morning rally through Wall Street, a daily ritual of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The previous day, many in the movement reveled in the good press, as well as attention from papers around the globe. Papers and blogs around the city were posting articles on the brutality witnessed at Saturday’s rally. The Nation published a corrective story on the limits of a condescending Sunday article in the Sunday week in review section of the Times. Lawrence O’Donnell lambasted the NY Police Department for their treatment of those involved in the Occupy Wall street movement. He linked the harsh treatment of activists, including a woman who was pepper sprayed and a cameraman who was forcibly shoved to the ground for filming Saturday’s rally with a long pattern of police abuses. Monday evening, a statement of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street from Noam Chomsky, furthered the point that the world was taking notice.
"Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street -- financial institutions generally -- has caused severe damage to the people of the United States (and the world). And should also know that it has been doing so increasingly for over 30 years, as their power in the economy has radically increased, and with it their political power. That has set in motion a vicious cycle that has concentrated immense wealth, and with it political power, in a tiny sector of the population, a fraction of 1%, while the rest increasingly become what is sometimes called "a precariat" -- seeking to survive in a precarious existence. They also carry out these ugly activities with almost complete impunity -- not only too big to fail, but also "too big to jail."
The courageous and honorable protests underway in Wall Street should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course."
Tuesday morning, I heard more rumors that the city planned to shut down the event. But few could be confirmed. It was a lovely ride from Brooklyn into Manhattan. Riding across the bridge, I always look at the city and wonder what she has in store as I ride off the bridge and take a left in front of City Hall. I met my wife on this route years ago; I’ve also watched hundreds of activists arrested, stood in line for press conferences, hung out with Brad Will there, waited for friends to get out of the Tombs, and helped amplify the voice of the people fighting the power – all within this vicinity. Yet, no experience I have had in almost 15 years of activism in New York compares with the experience of Occupy Wall Street. And few in the movement want to stop. No one at Liberty Plaza had heard reports of a police shut down. Everyone’s stuff still lay there when I arrived at 9:15.
“Has the morning rally started yet?” I asked a man sitting at a soap box, turned reception table for the movement.
“They are already moving. They just left,” he explained with a smile. “Good luck man.”
So I walked down and took a left on Wall Street to take part in the morning rally. Walking across Wall Street, I heard one man comment, “It’s like they want to get arrested.” “Fucking hippies,” another complained when he could not get around the crowd, penned between police and barricades and the street.
Marchers stood to stood to speak, echod by the human mike. And we made our way down to Bowling Green and back up Broadway, accompanied by police who stood on guard in front of the bank windows. “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” we screamed with the retort. “And so did you.” Walking up to the bull a new chant, “Get up, Get down! There’s a revolution in this town” reverberated with the members of the crowd.
Up at Trinity Church the police, the march attempted to zig back toward Wall Street, but the police pushed it West behind the old church. More and more police surrounded the street activists. Earlier in the day, the Times has posted that the NYPD seemed ill equipped for such an ongoing, non-violent campaign.
The police’s actions suggested the flip side of a force trained to fight terrorism, in a city whose police commissioner acknowledges the ownership of a gun big enough to take down a plane, but that may appear less nimble in dealing with the likes of the Wall Street protesters. So even as the members of Occupy Wall Street seem unorganized … their continued presence creates a vexing problem for the Police Department.
So, the police carried their batons and escorted the march back to Liberty Plaza. “Mike check” one man called. “Mike check” the crowd responded. “We want to thank the NYPD for allowing us to have another peaceful march.” I love the earnestness of the movement. I also love their insistence on moving forward despite police harassment. At the General Assembly members recite the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In this writer’s humble opinion, those in the streets do not need to thank or ask the government for the right to exorcize constitutionally protected speech. Yet, this is what city appears to want from street activists. As the Times reported this morning:
In interviews, police officials described the lack of a permit and the fact that protesters were obstructing traffic as key factors in the arrests and the department’s decision to end the march.
“If you have a permit, the police will accommodate for things like diverting traffic,” Mr. Browne said. “If you take a street for a parade or protest without a permit, you are subject to arrest.”
Brown is referring to a police rule supported by Council Speaker Chris Quinn which suggests that groups of fifty or more must access a permit to exercise their First Amendment rights. Of course, countless parades take place a year throughout New York City without permits. Implementation of the parade permit rule is far more arbitrary than uniform. It is far more subject to whims and biases than clear policy. The courts have not been kind to the NYPD when it comes to battles over parade permit rules. And no doubt, the city will have to pay out large sums to those arrested without warning, pepper sprayed, and beaten by police. My friend Andy from ACT UP likens the First Amendment to pregnancy. “You cannot be kindov pregnant… The same principle applies to the First Amendment. Either you have it or you don’t.”
As police pushed activists West behind Trinity Church, I skipped out of the parade. My rule of thumb in these things is not to be penned in or surrounded by police at any time. I’ve been swept up by police too many times. Watching police surround the movement of youth speaking out, I turned right to look at the graves in Trinity Church. I noticed at Alexander Hamilton’s gave and wondered what he might think of the whole affair. On February 23, 1775, Alexander Hamilton commented on the inherent right of people to speak out for freedom.
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
Watching the police corral the crowd, it sure looked like the police were attempting to “obscure” the movement’s right to “peaceable assembly.” This is not an unruly mob or a gang; it is not a group ready to riot, despite what the mayor says. And contrary to what the Times reports, they are quite aware of what is going on. They helped elect a president who has not had their back or made the kinds of reforms many hoped for. So, they are taking solutions into their own hands, as a peaceful, dynamic movement. Twelve years after the WTO meetings of November 1999, comparisons between local demonstrations and the Battle of Seattle by police feel like another way to demonize a crowd and justify a crackdown. This is not a group ready to brake windows. They do want some of their future back. And many worry it is being traded away.
Yesterday, I ruminated about the Chinese Democracy Wall Movement of 1978-9; ten years later, between ebbs and flows, tanks rolled into the occupation in Tiananmen Square. I certainly hope the same does not happen in Liberty Plaza. Yet, watching the police standing around the space, I wondered.
“I hadn’t even noticed the police standing around until you mentioned it,” a woman standing labeling books at the Occupy Wall Street library commented, when I pointed it out. “I have to pick up my kids this afternoon. I have been dropping them off in the mornings and then coming here.”
Throughout the morning rally I talked with participants about our action and its impacts. Few had heard about a police crackdown planned. And were prepared to stick it out. Many are happy the word is getting out to the world. “They are hearing us,” one woman pointed out as we marched. “They hear us. The question is do they care?” It certainly is. Rather than create a confrontation this consensus based movement has chosen to stay the course, create art and support an occupation which will last till October 6th when members will travel to Washington DC for a nationwide action of the Occupy Wall Street movement now stretching from New York to Los Angeles.
Walking away from the park, I stopped to reflect on the messages along the democracy wall of posters and signs posted around the park. “Bankers stole my kids future” read one sign. Among the cacophony of signs another spoke to the more solemn mood of the day: “Ideas do not turn into solutions over night.” Stick with it Occupy Wall Street. The whole world is reveling on your commitment to direct democracy of the people, by the people, for the people.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
On a week when new statistics came out pointing to an eighteen year high in poverty levels, a group of idealistic street activists descended on Wall Street on Saturday. Dismayed with Obama, a one sided approach to serving the needs of bankers, and a lack of a national policy toward policy, a new generation of activists have turned back to the street to make their own solutions, creating a space, Liberty Park, off Broadway at Liberty Street and Trinity below Trinity Church, where they would rally, cook, create art, and participate in an open ended experiment in democracy. Occupy Wall Street was the call of action heard around the globe.
Friday the 16th activists held a general assembly and Critical Mass bike ride announced on facebook.
Join NYC cyclists in support of the #OccupyWallStreet movement. Ride is open-ended and self-organizing, with a focus on downtown Manhattan. Be prepared to participate as long as you like.
Bring cargo bikes, sound bikes, walkie-talkies, chalk, flyers, and ideas for how we can support the occupation with scouting, food/water/supply transport, outreach and other actions.
We will discuss in person to make some vague plans before we start this rolling occupation!
Saturday the event started, with rallies, street actions, and general assemblies. No one really knew what to make of the action at the beginning. Youth had organized it, although looking around the space on a Saturday afternoon I saw many of the usual suspects, police, a few supporters of Lydon LaRouche, etc. Throughout the evening, those of us at the Not an Alternative rentrification party talked about the power and hope of those taking to the streets.
They held a general assembly and slept out Saturday. Some would embrace this approach. Others worried there was too much of a focus on consensus. Others were critical of the organizational approach of similar actions. Some simply could not handle the open ended meetings attended by what looked like thousands.
Yet, the actions continued Sunday and so did the general assemblies. Sunday night, my friend Marina Sitrin, author of Horizonalism, send out the following post.
Thousands of people gathered on Wall Street yesterday.
We marched, rallied, and then met in a park to form dozens of
horizontal assemblies - some with over 100 people in each.
At 7pm there was a general assembly - with over 2000 people -
facilitated again with direct democracy. We used the 'people's microphone' to communicate with one another. (A form of magnification where the group around the person speaking repeats what they say - in small bits - similar to translation – only this way one person's voice can be heard by hundreds, amplified by many dozens.)
Then, hundreds stayed, sleeping in the park and organizing to take
care of each other and make a democratic space. (There are food, bedding, health, legal, media, trash, security and art working groups.)
This is New York City!
As of Sunday night it is still going on.
Hundreds are still gathered in horizontal assemblies, hoping to keep
the space occupied. Zuccotti Park (near Trinity Church)
I have not been this inspired in the United States in a very long time.
Perhaps we are joining the world and waking up.
That night I turned to the live feed of the people’s assembly along with some five thousand others from around the world. Members of the group discussed plans, logistics, and the connection between this movement and those of Arab Spring. Many drew similar connections.
For others, this was a continuation of actions taking place from Egypt to Wisconsin and Albany, where waves of protests challenged the politics of austerity. May 12, 2011, activists from around the country converged on Wall to protest budget austerity. With union people, students, teachers, and AIDS activists converging at Bowling Green at the lower most tip of Manhattan, my friend Ron suggested this should we our Tahrir Square.
On Monday September 19th, I rode down to the action once again, joining hundreds marching on Wall Street, where they were penned in between barricades. Others remained at Liberty Plaza where they painted cardboard signs about the economy and why they were there. “War is a racket,” one read. Another highlighted record level inequalities in wealth seen in recent years. “The wealthiest 400 Americans own more than the poorest 60% (that’s more than 18,000,000 people). Who do politicians really care about?”
Talking with young activists, I saw a picture of a new generation ready to engage and create their own solutions, rather than wait for a leader or a politician. News reports from around the world were now covering the actions. Friends from California to Germany posted to Facebook that all eyes are on Wall Street.
Monday, I ran into artist and squatter Seth Tobocman painting a cardboard box on the sidewalk. We talked about the actions and the fact that this was a different scene than the Giuliani approach, which would have involved more arrests faster.
Later I would post on Facebook: “I went down today. It was looking good. The police allowed them to spend the night. They are giving them more room than in the Giuliani years, but six were arrested this morning when they pushed. Still, more people need to get down there.”
Reverend Billy would point out that the police tend to take sides with the rich. It is hard to disagree with the point.
That night, I could not plug into the live feed and the news was projecting bad weather. Marina posted that the general assembly, art making, and workshops continued, in joyful and inspiring fashion.
Tuesday, I rode down. It was a colder rainier morning, but it wasn’t pouring. Still, Summer was turning to Fall and its harder to sleep in the streets without some cover from the rain. At 9:30 AM, a friend told me police had just taken away the tents and arrested a few more people. I talked with a few others who still remained optimistic. “I’m going to do outreach today,” one man who had come down from Maine, told me. I noted people were watching the live feed from around the world. He suggested that those people needed to start posting about what was going on and to call the city to tell them to stop harassing those involved. “Without as much media here, the police came down and started arresting those in tends.” His point was there need to be more people down there with cameras.
The rally had left so I sat down to talk with a friend. As we talked, those sleeping brought out sandwiches offering a free bite of food. I was in awe that a sleeping encampment had lasted three nights. I hadn’t seen this much since the Tompkins Square Park days in the late 1980’s, when sleeping in the park was the city de-facto housing policy. In the years, since then the homeless or those sleeping in the streets have become an emblem of poverty, a symbol to be pushed from view, out of New York’s contested public spaces and into the city’s new de-factor housing: its jails.
A little after 10 AM, the march ended and activists reconverged on the square, followed by a phalanx of police, who appeared considerably less tolerant than the day before. A white shirt pulled out a bullhorn and asked the group to put away their tents or they would be taken away. With a few seconds, the police moved in tearing away the tents, arresting those inside and those who got too close. “Why are you doing this” someone asked. “I don’t know,” an officer confessed. “Who are you protecting?” activists screamed. “The whole world is watching!” “Fuck no, we won’t go!”
“I never had a reason to hate cops until this,” one man observed.
“Fourteen people have been arrested. Some were pulled away from chalking or getting in the way of the police, or wearing a mask. And we’re just taking it,” another man told me. “We need some solidarity.”
Another man stood up to remind the group about the need for non-violence and solidarity.
There will be assemblies at 3 and 7 PM today. Those on the streets need support. Walking away I saw police lined around the square, some moving off, others moving to keep an eye on the scene. Attrition appears to be their strategy. Those with cameras would do well to go down to the space before this experiment in democracy ends with arrests and long days in the city’s tombs.