Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Creating a Space for Play, Community and Care Occupy Wall Street – Day 12

               As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe” announced the New York Times this morning.

“Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Indians cheer a rural activist on a hunger strike. Israel reels before the largest street demonstrations in its history. Enraged young people in Spain and Greece take over public squares across their countries.
Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.
They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.”

               That’s for sure.  In a time when formal political channels seen to produce few solutions to problems such as increasing poverty, global warming, and political gridlock, I revel in walking or riding to Zuccotti Park, the public space where Occupy Wall Street is now in its twelfth day. 


               Arriving today, I was struck with how much life, how much of a pulse is taking shape within the space.  Marching bands play; reverends preach.  There are less police and far more workers, conversations, busy workgroups, art and even play. 


               “Want a cigarette?” a young man offered.  We talked about the pleasure in the air in the space. 


               Finishing talking to him, I ran into a man who had been so furious about the police arrests the previous Tuesday. 

               “Have you gotten the solidarity you were hoping for?” I asked. 

               “Yes, he noted, but we need more.”  He pointed to his friend who had arrested earlier in the week.  She'd gotten the support she needed as well. 


               And I ran into my friend and co-author Greg, who noted that there had been people who asked him, “What do bonus plazas [such a Zuccotti Park] have to do with social movements?”  Many revel in the the very nature of the space


               “The privatized prison industry scares the shit out of me,” another man comments in a larger conversation.  That’s part of what is exciting about the space.  It is a place, like the old Times Square, where conversations are born.  Ten years after Union Square became our public commons, the center of New York has moved further downtown in another experiment is democratic engagement between workers, politicians, students, movement types, and those for whom this is their first experience in activism.. Walking around the space one can’t help but feel the pulse   It really has become a space for ideas and exchange of information. 


               It is a space where I run into friends from AIDS activism to trade unions.  The scene reminds me of what was so vital about spaces such as the Charas El Bohio Community Services Center in the Lower East Side before it was shut off to the public.  Social movements need public spaces to thrive.  This is, of course, is part of why supporters of neoliberalism shut off spaces where the public meets to build community, rather than commodify everything from water to air. 


               Already many are emulating the style of active listening produced by the human mike at used at the Occupy Wall Street meetings.  A side effective of this listening is convivial social relations as opposed to the shrill tones which often take shape in activist meetings.  Committee announcements for food as well as comfort begin the afternoon general assembly.  The comfort committee needs more toothpaste, toothbrushes, blankets and supplies.  There are hugs to spare. 


               Part of what takes shape in this space is a conversation about poverty, human need and care.  Faced with increasing poverty and political gridlock, Occupy Wall Streets embodies a new model of mutual aid, in which people find new forms of social and community support.  And most certainly many need it.  “23 years old, 3 science degrees, $130,000 in debt, ‘Get a Job’ ‘Fuck you I’m trying” reads another.  The theme of a generation burdened with debt is found in many of the signs.  “People before Profits” reads another sign.  Rather than resignation or utopian fancy, many here are embrace a new model of care.  “Love humanity lets get our shit together,” reads another sign.  “It’s not too late America.  We can fix this shit.”   “NYPD: New York’s Bullies” and “Wasting tax dollars policing peaceful protest this is what hypocrisy looks like” read critiques of the NYPD.  While an anti-police brutality rally is planned for Friday at 1 Police Plaza, most of the crowd is not anti-police.  “NYPD are part of the 99%” reads another sign seeking solidarity with the police.  The solidarity may be becoming mutual.  


               “Revolution means we care about each other,” my friend Mark Andersen said.  You can certainly see it at Occupy Wall Street.  There is a new culture being created right here. 

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.

The form of the current occupation is not a style manifesto.The principals of solidarity out of the Wall Street Occupation are not a Hot Topic fashion coup.  The demands that are published in their Fifth Communique are not the ramblings of some overheated fashion editor.

They are, instead, a political platform.

The hemming and hawing one hears, regarding how the occupiers “look like hippies,” or how their form is “just like the recent anti-war protests” or how they “lack a message” are wrong. This is a different situation, this is a unique response to a uniquely ongoing crisis. As such, it's technically impossible for the response to be “the same”, but that's besides the point.

As should be now common knowledge, capitalism in the United States (and elsewhere) fosters ever more shit-employement, a further impoverishment of the public sphere, an ever more disfunctionalizing political systems, and alienating social forms. It sucks, and the bet of this occupation, of any open occupation or open radical forum is that peoples from all walks of life, alienated from the ever-shrinking structural “mainstream” “centricity” will find their future in the movement, its plazas and platforms and barricades.

As many have commented, we have before us an opportunity for real, general, movement. Though there have been localized resistances, (Wisconsin, Empire Windows and Doors, New School and UC Occupations, The push-back against defunding of Planned Parenthood etc..) we have now a form that, in a generalized manner (99% might understand) can be the wind behind these and other struggles. Yes, there is a qualitative difference between local and general struggles, this is true. But to discount the general struggle because of the way it looks or the way it talks is wrong. Change happens with the movement you have, not the movement you want. If not now, when? To fault this movement because it doesn't look like this or that group of people is, in my understanding, a mis-read of the nature of radically progressive politics.

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.

For the movement to be successful, that new look, or better, the many new looks will be forged in the course of movements. To predetermine the look (as designers or political organizers) is to limit the movement's potential, is to be bound into “the student look”, “the hippy look”, “the same format of the RNC protests”, “the antiwar protests etc...” or some formula that will limit the potential for real generalization.

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.

The nature of social movements; from the technical/social movement generated with the mass-production of the automobile, to the theological social movement generated with the schism between Rome and the Protestants, to the social movements generated in the civil rights era- they all radically alter the ways that people look and dress and talk and sound and live. Occupy Wall Street gives form for a generalized movement that may have the potential to radically alter things- it has a structure in which to incorporate yet is differentiated enough in order to forge something yet unknown.

I among many have been waiting for this for some years now. Lets all stop being fashionistas sneering at the pages of Vogue and instead join in on the forging of something radically beautiful.

Thanks to Benjamin Heim Shepard, Beka Economopoulos and Olive McKeon and my friends at Occupy Everything for ideas and words which helped me write this piece.

Note from Benjamin Shepard.  Thanks for contributing Marc.  After you helped me put together my first writings on social movements and play in JOAP, its an honor to have you post on this blog. Its also a pleasure to respond to the dude on Wall Street yesterday, who chimed in that we were "Fucking hippies." 
"I'm not  a hippy" I wanted to respond.  "But I am with them."  Thanks to Marc for helping explain why. 

Zuccotti Park is a Public Space

While many reports suggest the Zuccotti Park , known as Liberty Plaza, is a private space, this is a deceptive description of the space. It is in fact a bonus plaza. Place Matters explains: “Zuccotti Park is a bonus plaza for 1 Liberty Plaza, which means that the public green space is a zoning requirement for the real estate corporation.

“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

Occupy Wall Street Day 11 and Thoughts about Democracy

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."

Noam Chomsky

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

Ten Days and Strong: Occupy Wall Street Takes on Wealth Inequality

Last week, I spent every day going down to the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan. “Bankers got bailed out, we got sold out” is one of the most popular chants, as is: “We are the 99%.” The “99%” is a reference to the percentage of people who do not benefit from the expanding income inequality, which is the target of the protests. The Forbes 400, a compiling the richest 400 people in the US, are said to own 60% of its wealth.

More and more tax policies, such as the ones being discussed in Congress today, involve cutting taxes on the wealthy—a group whose income is sorely needed to maintain current tax revenues. While they see hundreds of thousands of dollars returned to them by tax cuts, communities around the nation are losing vital human services (police and fire departments, school closures, etc.). Much of the problem is it feels like the government is run by and for corporations, not regular people. Years before Citizens United, it felt like corporations ran the world. In recent years, many have taken to organizing to challenge this proposition.
Today a new movement is taking shape, loosely described as #Occupy Wall Street. Meeting in a park in downtown Manhattan for the last ten days, this group represents an extension of both the global justice and anti-austerity movements which converged in Wall Street on May 12, 2011. “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET is a people powered movement for democracy that began in America on September 17 with an encampment in the financial district of New York City. Inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas, we vow to end the monied corruption of our democracy … join us!notes Adbusters, which put out the first call for the actions now taking shape from LA to Chicago and New York. Now, in its tenth day, the group, the movement is largely comprised of activists from all over the country who have come to ignite some of the power of both the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests seen in Europe. They have come to challenge the growing social and economic inequalities ranging from disparities in wealth to access to democratic institutions. “Democracy not Plutocracy” declared a sign carried by one of the activists last Saturday. “I see Republicrats… I do not see democracy or the voice of the people” explained one observer involved in the movement. So, many are taking it back to the streets.
“GET MAD” reads a message painted on the back of a Pizza Box. On the north side of Liberty Plaza, many have posted messages on pieces of cardboard explaining why they are there. Many resemble the messages seen in the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing from 1978-79, when thousands of people posted messages in about the problems of modern China along an open wall along Chang’an Avenue, just West of the Forbidden City. “Citizens United Against Greedy Bankers” reads another one. Many address the influence of money on our politics. “Who Funds Our Senators: Wall Street.” “Corporations are People Too: RIP McCain Feingold." Others rage at the system itself: “”Occupy Wall Street: Time to Change the System.” “Kill the Corporate Worm.” “The Rich Get Richer The Poor Get Poorer Flawed System.” “Wall Street Doesn’t Pay.” Some recall the generation of 1968: ““Revolution is Poetry, Poetry is Revolution! Imagination!!!” Others hearken for a Velvet Revolution type moment in which we tear down the wall: “Rip Down Wall Street and Make a Just Street.” The central theme of the messages is that democracy is bought, sold and controlled by Wall Street.
This call to globalize democracy rather than corporate rule reverberates throughout movements. When Reclaim the Streets New York targeted Wall Street with a similar ambition for an action on June 18, 1999 (which also began at Liberty Plaza), we were swept off the streets as soon as we stepped off the sidewalk. We had better luck on May 12th, 2011 when a larger coalition of anti-austerity activists converged on Wall Street to continue the work seen from Wisconsin to Albany to establish a counter assault to the war on pensions, public service unions, public education, and the public sphere in general.
In the weeks before members of my union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC ) including myself, were arrested at Governor Cuomo’s office chanting, “Tax the Rich, Not the Poor: Stop the War on CUNY.” At a time when education for training and other human services are more in demand than ever, funding for these programs are more under threat than they ever have been. The prime attack on these programs is from the Koch Brothers, number four on the Forbes list, who funded the Tea Party and the subsequent push for austerity programs seen around the country. The Koch Brothers also helped fund the campaign of Governor Cuomo in New York.
“We made the decision to risk arrest because we cannot allow the injustice of this budget to stand,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC, who was among the protesters. “We have lobbied and rallied and written in support of a fair budget, but our voices have not been heard. Albany is on the verge of passing a budget that is so damaging to our students and so fundamentally unjust that we had to take a stand. We are educators – we spend our lives teaching students how to challenge false premises, and the false premise of this budget must be challenged.” The governor would later succeed in pushing through this austerity budget. Senior colleges at CUNY would end up losing $95.1 million if the budget passes without change. CUNY’s community colleges another $17.5 million.
The CUNY faculty and staff were joined in their act of civil disobedience by CUNY students. Members of New York Communities for Change, the Real Rent Reform Campaign, and Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) also took part in the protest. We collectively argued that the state budget should not put the interests of corporations, the wealthy and the super-rich above the needs of ordinary New Yorkers.
Research from the Fiscal Policy Institute shows that the richest 1% of earners receives 35% of all income collected in New York State. In New York City, income inequality is even more dramatic: 44% of all income is collected by the top 1% there.
The financial services industry is once again making record profits and real estate interests have spent millions on PR and lobby campaigns to weaken rent control, undermine teachers’ contract rights and cut services for working New Yorkers. The wealthy, we argued, can afford to pay their fair share.
"We need a budget that protects kids and not millionaires,” noted Gail Gadsden, a parent leader from New York Communities for Change. “This budget contains the largest transfer of wealth from low-income communities to wealthy individuals in New York State history. Governor Cuomo really needs to search his soul and rethink these cuts."
Bowen and members of the PSC would later support the efforts of the Occupy Wall Street movement, speaking out in support. “We’re honored to be here with you today,” noted Bowen during last Thursday’s delegate assembly. And there is good reason for this solidarity among movements fighting the influence of Wall Street and the ever expanding inequality taking hold.
Throughout the last two weeks, journalists, activists and observers alike have asked what those in #Occupy Wall Street want. “A Message From Occupied Wall Street (Day Five)” published on September 22 by OccupyWallSt, laid out a few of the movement’s demands in a poetic fashion.
This is the fifth communiqué from the 99 percent. We are occupying Wall Street.
On September 21st, 2011, Troy Davis, an innocent man, was murdered by the state of Georgia. Troy Davis was one of the 99 percent.
Ending capital punishment is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, the richest 400 Americans owned more wealth than half of the country's population.
Ending wealth inequality is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, four of our members were arrested on baseless charges.
Ending police intimidation is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, we determined that Yahoo lied about being in spam filters.
Ending corporate censorship is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly eighty percent of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track.
Ending the modern gilded age is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly 15% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing.
Ending political corruption is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly one sixth of Americans did not have work.
Ending joblessness is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly one sixth of America lived in poverty.
Ending poverty is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly fifty million Americans were without health insurance.
Ending health-profiteering is our one demand.
Today, one in five New Yorkers lives in poverty. And poverty has increased to 15.1% nationally. The poverty threshold for a family of three is: $15,205.00, for a family of four is: $19,307.00. Conversely, the wealth of the top 1% of the population is greater than the bottom 90% combined. Such inequality directly impacts any number of the health and risk factors among the poor. Economic policy is health policy. If we do not address this problem, it will only grow larger.
Recent numbers, however, suggest poverty is on the rise. Yet, instead of following a Keynesian strategy to address the issue as we have done in the past, we’re still fighting the shadow Reagan, whose first budget director who suggested that faced with deficits, that government’s would rather pay off the debt than expand programs. So he allowed Reagan to turn Carter era surpluses into deficits; Bush did the same thing with Clinton era surpluses. Stockman would later confess this approach is less than helpful. Starving the beast is a way to gut programs, even when a party is out of power. And today, it has found its fate accompli with the shadow of the Bush deficits overwhelming the Obama agenda in congress.
In response to debt, federal and state governments are supporting austerity measures which gut programs for the poor and working class, including housing, social security, pensions, and education. From California to New York and even London, public education has been on the chopping block with tuitions rising and class size increasing. Students did not create the economic crisis of 2008; the bankers did. They should not pay for their mess. The poor should not bear the brunt of austerity measures. Today, college students see programs, such as pensions, Social Security and public education which their parents took for granted whittled away. Yet, not everyone is just taking this sitting down, as the Occupy Wall Street Movement demonstrates.
My favorite chant at last week’s morning rally to Wall Street was "We are the 99%" not benefitting from the Bush/ Reagan era tax policies, those not listed on the Forbes 400. "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out," everyone chanted. And many, many of the working people acknowledged that we had a point.
"All day, all week: Occupy Wall Street!!!!" everyone chanted as the march made its way through New York’s financial district yesterday morning. The movement is getting stronger. More and more people are turning out. And so are police. On Saturday, the march up to Union Square from Liberty Plaza ended at 12th and University, where it was “met with arrests and police brutality,” noted my friend Brennan Cavanaugh, who was later arrested for photographing police. “Occupy Wall Street is a peaceful demonstration against international corporate greed at the expense of 99% of the world's human population.” And for this message, eighty paid by being arrested, some enduring pepper spray, and spending the night in jail.
By Saturday, it looked like the police were ready to start cracking down on Occupy Wall Street. Lots of netting out. police surrounding the space, yet everyone stayed in the square. A group of cyclists played music on their sound bike and circled the space. When the media arrived, the police seemed to leave. Yet, the police have distributed papers saying “camping” or “laying down’ are prohibited in the park. The police sent out similar messages during the RNC before Critical Mass Bike rides saying it is “illegal” to ride a bike in a procession. They did so before mass arrests of Cyclists in 2004. I hope they are not planning a similar move today.
This is a movement organized to address the biggest issues of our times. Without such a movement, it is difficult to imagine considering the issues of social justice and increasing poverty. Old approaches – from the Earned Income Tax Credit to Micro Financing - feel limited. While the tax credits help support the working poor and micro finance supports innovation, today, an injection of vitality is sorely needed in our approaches to poverty reduction. One of the functions of social movements is to infuse innovation into organizational practices. In this case, a new dose of creativity could help us deal with the assault on the social safety net. Already we are seeing calls for a “new mutualism” in which people share resources and support each other throughout the Great Recession. Through such movements, we share, build support, and create solutions. This is what Occupy Wall Street is all about. The very future of the US social safety net is under attack. If you care about it, get down to join the young people who have chosen to take the solution into their own hands by Occupying Wall Street.
I just got back from the morning march around Wall Street. One woman carried a sign which declared: “In Debt: Join the Union.” Another announced: “Debt is Slavery.” The sign resonated with many observers along the march, many of the workers. Many of the young people marching know there is something vastly wrong with this system which seems ready to trade away their future, pensions, and public education, while creating more tax cuts for the rich. Yet, instead of resignation, they are engaging, organizing, and expanding a democratic conversation about public space, financing, and economic policy. “AIG, Goldman Sacks, Give the fucking money back!” a few chanted right behind the women carrying the debt signs. Few of our leaders are speaking up for those with increasing dept, yet the banks are bailed out. Many recognize this is wrong and are willing to speak up about it, while offering alternatives. “End the War, Tax the Rich, how to pay this deficit!!!” others screamed. There are alternatives out there. And those organizing Occupy Wall Street are pushing to make sure their ideas are being heard.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Crack Down on Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street to Police: “Who Are You Defending?

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.