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.

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